Tuesday, 30 September 2008

2008 Music Chart - September

Some really big hitters this month from Mogwai, finally knocking NIN from the top spot (yet another impressive instrumental album), and Metallica plus some interesting albums from My Epic, Arther and Matt Wertz. I have moved things around a bit based on repeat listens. The Proceed album, even though it is short, is a revelation and deserves a high place. And higher places for Seth Lakeman, British Sea Power and Counting Crows.

So the new yearly chart looks like this:
  1. The Hawk Is Howling - Mogwai
  2. Ghosts I-IV - Nine Inch Nails
  3. I Want You To Know That There Is Always Hope - I Was A Cub Scout
  4. Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust - Sigur Rós
  5. Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down - Noah And The Whale
  6. Death Magnetic - Metallica
  7. Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
  8. Seventh Tree - Goldfrapp
  9. Third - Portishead
  10. Mountain Meadows - Elliott Brood
  11. Accelerate - R.E.M.
  12. We Started Nothing - The Ting Tings
  13. Church Bell Blues - Catherine MacLellan
  14. The Seldom Seen Kid - Elbow
  15. Arther - Arther
  16. Poor Man's Heaven - Seth Lakeman
  17. The Age Of The Understatement - The Last Shadow Puppets
  18. Glasvegas - Glasvegas
  19. Consolers Of The Lonely - The Raconteurs
  20. Do You Like Rock Music - British Sea Power
  21. Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings - Counting Crows
  22. Seven Months And A Fire Blanket - Proceed
  23. Silent Cry - Feeder
  24. Liejacker - Thea Gilmore
  25. Narrow Stairs - Death Cab For Cutie
  26. In Rainbows - Radiohead
  27. Alas, I Cannot Swim - Laura Marling
  28. Little Voice - Sara Bareilles
  29. Midnight Boom - The Kills
  30. This Is A Fix - The Automatic
  31. Friday Night Lights - Attic Lights
  32. Welcome To Goon Island - XX Teens
  33. Attack & Release - The Black Keys
  34. I Am Undone - My Epic
  35. Rosie And The Goldbug - Rosie And The Goldbug
  36. Songs In A&E - Spiritualized
  37. You Cross My Path - The Charlatans
  38. @#%&*! Smilers - Aimee Mann
  39. Under Summer Sun - Matt Wertz
  40. The Slip - Nine Inch Nails
  41. Toy Tugboats - Sunfold
  42. The Hollow Of Morning - Gemma Hayes
  43. When The Night Time Comes - Jenny Lindfors
  44. The Well - Sarah Perrotta
  45. Saturnalia - The Gutter Twins
  46. Neptune - The Duke Spirit
  47. Heat: The Remixes - Soft Cell
  48. Viva La Vida - Coldplay
  49. Elliot Minor - Elliot Minor
  50. This Gift - Sons & Daughters
  51. Sunny Day Sets Fire - Summer Palace
  52. Kids Aflame - ARMS
  53. Revolving Doors - Nelson
So 52 albums featured - with most reviewed for either The Music Magazine or AltSounds.com - and it is not even October yet :)

Arther - Arther Album Review (2008)

French bands are like buses...After Nelson, now Arther, who are thankfully much much better. This is such a wonderful album - a great blend of guitar driven indie and folk with no electronics. So it's strange that the band are labelled as the new Portishead. I noticed this band on AltSounds - at first I thought it was a solo artist. After checking out the MySpace page, I grabbed the album to review.

The review:

Every so often bands appear from nowhere and take you completely by surprise. The idea of a 'French Portishead' who quote influences like Radiohead and Smashing Pumpkins does very little to inspire confidence. It is a prospect to approach carefully with feelings of curiosity and dread. But with a singer (the eloquent Juliette) who is not as much like Beth Gibbons as she thinks and a wonderful guitarist (Alex), Arther generate a sound which transcends any immediate influences. On the surface the eponymous titled album appears to be a constant confusion of styles and sounds. This could not be further from the truth.

The album is a delight from start to finish, opening with an impressive trio of songs ending with the sublime 'Ghost Of My Mind'. The delicate soft vocals and jangling percussion make way for a simple arrangement. The second chorus comes complete with spooky backing vocals. The guitars are prominent throughout but excel at the end. Prior to this, opener 'Totally Out' is the only in-your-face pop song. If you excuse the cheesy 'pigeon cooing' backing vocals on the chorus, everything else works, especially the guitar arrangement; the contrast of light and heavy. It nearly goes astray near the end but comes back quickly with the melody and then into a buzz saw finish. 'TV Show' is just as good with a more complex mix of guitars and vocals. Juliette veers into wailing and the music gets muddy but it all holds together. The slightly clumsy vocal delivery of "I'm feeding your souls with my TV shows", as a manic anti-media evangelist, only adds to the charm. The only real disappointment is a limp ending.

The rest of the album steers the same course and maintains a high standard. 'Raining On Me' has another great combination of guitars and vocals. The basic chorus blends perfectly with the more complex music and it is all very reminiscent of The Cranberries. The song threatens a transformation with a minute to go with a brief guitar break but what emerges is more of the same. 'Insensible Mind' is the closest comparison to Portishead but is a lot more organic with just about everything: starting with quiet vocals and slow drums, into heavy bass and wailing, to some great use of stereo as the guitars glide from left to right and back again. The song is filled with interesting twists and turns including a thrash ending. Wonderful.

'Ederlezi' is the only song on the album without English vocals even though it sounds like an old English folk song. But the lyrics are not French either, they are Romany. This is a wonderful traditional Roma song, the name of which is translated as the Serbian feast of Saint George (hence the English connection). The basis of the song is a celebration of family and seems to involve sacrificing sheep. In the Roma language, the gorgeous vocal arrangement is most prominent. A real surprise.

Even after such a high quality start, Arther stay consistent and compelling right to the last note. The final two songs 'Take Me Out' and 'I Do' are both impressive. The former has another exquisite guitar and vocal opening and some great lyrics: "Cry me an ocean my love, so I take my time and swim about...". The chorus is filled with grinding heavy guitars. With two minutes to go, just as the song is starting to get too long, a gorgeous melody returns before more heavy guitars and bass and a bizarre juxtaposition of tunefulness and squealing. The closing track could be country rock - the excellent guitars again at the core. They never get too heavy this time. If anything it is the drums and cymbals which are too invasive. It is always said, 'when you go away, leave them wanting more' but as the messy fade starts, you can't help thinking it could be a lot longer.

'Arther' is not just a great album because it is unexpected. Great care and thought has been taken in fusing vocals with guitars but also the entire ensemble. The only fault is the production as too often the percussion is too loud and sharp in the mix. It would benefit from a more blended approach. But this is a minor fault. Juliette's vocals are brilliant, even when she drifts too far into falsetto. The songs do not always have an immediate hold; it is the distinctive sound - just the right blend of influence and styles - that is impressive. Juliette sings in a lovely English, tinged with a thick French accent, adding to the band's overall appeal. All of this makes Arther the most interesting and talented French band in a very long time.

-- CS (for Altsounds)

Monday, 29 September 2008

LATER...with Jools Holland (Series 33, Show 2 - 23/09/2008 and 26/09/2008)

A more reflective show is week due to the death of Richard Wright. Fellow Pink Floyd singer and guitarist David Gilmore was due to perform, with Wright, to promote his new live album. Wright cancelled a few weeks ago due to ill health. So Gilmore talked about working with Wright and performed one of his songs from the early days. So this tribute overshadowed yet another amazing set from Elbow which easily overshadowed everything else on offer.

Tuesday show
  • Elbow - Grounds For Divorce
  • Katy Perry - I Kissed A Girl
  • David Gilmore (Chat with JH)
  • Roots Manuva - Again & Again
  • David Gilmore - Remember A Day
  • Imelda May - Johnny Got A Boom Boom
  • Elbow - One Day Like This
  • Elbow - Grounds For Divorce
  • Katy Perry - I Kissed A Girl
  • David Gilmore - Remember A Day
  • Elbow (Chat with JH)
  • Roots Manuva - Again & Again
  • Imelda May - Johnny Got A Boom Boom
  • Elbow - One Day Like This
  • Hayes Carll - Beaumont
  • David Gilmore (Chat with JH)
  • Katy Perry - Waking Up In Vegas
  • Imelda May - Falling In Love With You Again
  • Roots Manuva - Let The Spirit
  • Elbow - The Bones Of You
  • David Gilmore - The Blue
Elbow owned both shows and took time to chat with Jools about winning the Mercury Music Prize. Guy and Pete talked about how they spent the money - Guy bought more radios and when asked which stations he listens to, plugged 6music and his own show. It was an annoyingly short interview in which Pete told Jools how the band dynamic relies on their friendship - they were all friends before they were any good, and that they make music they want to hear and follow no trends. The set was predictable: Grounds For Divorce (with Guy on chime bashing duties), One Day Like This (closing the Tuesday show and forming the centrepiece of Friday) and The Bones Of You. Flawless and accomplished as always.

David Gilmore, almost looking embarrased to be on the show given recent news, talked to Jools on Tuesday and then Friday about his friend, collegue and fellow musician Richard Wright. He is the ethereal jazz glue that held the Pink Floyd sound together, he said. You can't explain it, it is like soul and you miss it when it is gone. They showed some footage of Echoes and Gilmore said that it was a song they would probably never perform again - they simply wouldn't be able to play it without Wright. Musically Remember A Day was better on the Friday - it all looked a bit uncomfortable on Tuesday, and Gilmore closed the main show with The Blue, from his solo album.

Elsewhere, only Hayes Carll was impressive. For a few minutes during Beaumont hehas the entire audience in the palm of his hand - a great present with just one voice and one guitar. A very good surprise. Imelda May was also good but a bit too safe. The swing stomp of Johnny Got A Boom Boom was awkward and the more simple Falling In Love With You Again with Jools on piano is a decent ballad. Katy Price (who I don't get) rattled through attention grabbing I Kissed A Girl and then the much better rock of Waking Up In Vegas.

The only artist of no interest was Roots Manuva. It was noisy and shouty and pointless. He may be an institution but so is Herbie Hancock and I just don't get him either.

An interesting and more subdued show in which artists ultimately did not gel toegther.

Foals - Olympic Airways Single Review (2008)

A single review for The Music Magazine. I have never paid much attention to Foals but I was intrigued by the 'live' performances for various radio shows - I think the band appeared on BBC Radio 2 for Jonathan Ross as well as 6music.

The review:

With a debut album received with what can only be described as a lukewarm reception, Foals is another band that needs to live up to the early hype. Yet it seems that Yannis Philippakis et al are more comfortable just keeping their heads down until the media storm clears and they can just get one with it. Even the NME are now on the fence.

Earlier this year Foals performed a short session for BBC 6music in which they reworked previous singles ‘Cassius’ and ‘Red Sox Pugie’ with acoustic guitars. The concept of an unplugged set is nothing new but somehow they made it a revelation, probably because it was so different and unexpected. The band were wide open for everyone to hear, raw and unhinged. They were clearly more than just another copycat indie lad-rock outfit. Back in January the band made number 5 in the BBC Sound of 2008 Top 10, behind Glasvegas but ahead of Vampire Weekend, Black Kids and MGMT. The question is: have they done enough to justify this early praise?

‘Olympic Airways’ is a topical (it is still an Olympic year) story of escapism centred around using an avian metaphor to describe long haul travel. Opening with soft guitar and a simple drum beat, held together with droning keyboards, it is trademark stuff as the lead guitar picking and bass begin a melody. Foals certainly have a sound that is distinctive and recognisable. In contrast to the musically urgency, Philippakis is in very subdued mode - his vocals flowing like molten chocolate. “If only we could move away, from here / This is how we built a place: an aviary for today… Let’s disappear ’til tomorrow”. He is distant and reflective until the big shouty chorus repeats ‘disappear’ over and over. There is a neat guitar break and pulsating bass before more warbling guitars. What should be a quick outro turns into a strange last minute of pseudo-improvised bass driven emptiness and a bit more of the same, as the solid three minute mould is broken.

Ultimately ‘Olympic Airways’ is not as annoying as big single ‘Cassius’ but not as good as last offering ‘Red Sox Pugie’. As a fourth single it continues to promote the album, but nothing more. Bassist Walter Gervers is exceptional as is the guitar duelling from Jimmy Smith and Philippakis but the whole song lacks any impact. Foals desperately need to break out of their comfortable world and add some interesting new ideas while maintaining their great sound. On this evidence, the difficult second album could prove to be more difficult than they expect.

-- CS (for The Music Magazine)

Friday, 26 September 2008

Nelson - Revolving Doors Album Review (2008)

I often enjoy writing negative reviews. When you buy your own music, you never really get the chance or have the inclination. You normally do so out of disappointment more than malice. As long as there is a lot to write about, and the music is interesting bad and not just boring, it is a useful experience. I really was trying hard with this new French band - Nelson. I refused to mention that their name is a bad Anglo-Franco ironic joke and as I say in the review, there is too much talk of the band's Frenchness. I focused on the music which is a baffling combination of a brave retro sound and complete and utter nonsense. A pat on the back for being honest I hope.

The review (for The Music Magazine):

The world is running out of musical genres. Bands are no longer classified and pigeon-holed as rock or indie or dance like they used to. If you don't use several (often hyphenated) words and phrases to describe your music, you must be doing something wrong. So French new-vague post-punk art-garage (ok that's enough - point made) foursome Nelson are trying to prove there is more to their country's music than Serge Gainsbourg, Vanessa Paradis and now Carla Bruni. The band are a compelling mix of The Strokes and Bauhaus with just a touch of Joy Division. Being retro is nothing new, so expectations are already low, but Nelson could just be different enough to turn a few heads.

Unfortunately, 'Revolving Doors' is one of those albums in which each song shows considerable promise for the first ten or twenty seconds before either falling apart or doing nothing, like each member of the band begins to drift away from each other and do their own thing. It makes for a truly frustrating listen as nothing happens when you want it to; the songs grind when they should flow and move left when you anticipate right. This is not for someone who enjoys logical chord progression. But the musicians involved have clearly worked on the songs: the subtle arrangements and specifically the vocals, shared principally by guitarist JB Devay and bassist Gregory Kovalski. David Nichols provides the keyboards and drummer Thomas Pirot excels more often than he doesn't. So there is young talent at work. And with youth comes a misguided naivety.

The album starts with mediocrity and slides downhill into an agonising demise. 'Slow Falling' is appropriate for an opening song - dark electronica bringing in the vocals and then dig drums, all set to tapping cymbals. The first signs of a distinctive multi-vocal sound appear before some squeaky keyboards and samples. 'The (Over) Song' is all vocals after the promising bass but quickly gets heavy and messy. 'Silence In Your Mind' sounds like an early Cure demo and seems to be infatuated with prostitutes. The drum track is impressive but again, when it tries to lift at the end, the guitars get messy. Things pick up with 'The Darkest Parts Of Your True Confessions', a tribute to Joy Division but more of a pale imitation, but a neat slack guitar riff morphs into another noisy mess.

That, believe it or not, is the best of the good first half. From here, 'Inside' is a peculiar juxtaposition of spoken word, eerie distant vocals and then a softer pop sound. It is all very uncomfortable and clumsy. It tries to be Editors or Interpol but fails to be either. The persistent military drum beat plagues 'People And Thieves', as does the constant repetition of simple lyrics. It is laboured and slow. 'Seasons', at least, tries to be a bit different. There is a cool and sinister fairground melody in both the vocals and guitars but the drums are horrible. It is ironic that Pirot should be the weak link here when everyone else is doing much better. A shame they could not all get it right at once. 'I [SYC] Stop' also attempts a much needed lift but Pirot sounds like a drum machine and it all gets shouty. The band try a classic verse-chorus-verse but never get anywhere.

The real let down is the last two songs. 'Paid It All' has all the makings of a great highlight but ends up as a really bad album in one song. A spooky ambient intro develops into a Geiger counter. The lead vocal splits in two and in spite of some repetition, it is genuinely good. But a horrible tuneless guitar break is a mess and half way through the six minutes you really want it all to go away. If this wasn't bad enough, the band flirt with controversy with a mock-nursery rhyme about the Virgin Mary. It is both offensive and misjudged. Moving on, the song disintegrates into an electronics filled fade. The big finale is 'Freakshows', starting with soft guitars and vocals accompanied by a heartbeat. Two minutes in and the vocal gymnastics - the only weapon in a now noticeably weak arsenal - try to salvage what is left of a failing song but it simply fades away. The last minute and a half is just the heartbeat and very long fade. Lazy, uninspired and pointless.

Far too much has been made (and will probably continue to be made) of Nelson's nationality. This should have nothing to do with the music and as so many influences are in the mix, the overall result is something that transcends any one style or culture. The decision not to sing in French is obvious as this would create an entirely different feel but you can't help thinking what 'Revolving Doors' might have been if they do. The combination of Devay and Kovalski is at best intriguingly complex and at worse annoyingly random. Musically, Nelson have taken the best elements from new post-punk garage bands and fused in early 80s new-wave goth electronica. But an interesting new sound is not good enough. The production is woeful, especially when the guitars fill in and the vocal mix could use more clarity. Above all Nelson desperately need good songs. Consistency is not an issue. It is all consistently weak.

-- CS (for The Music Magazine)

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

You Me At Six - Jealous Minds Think Alike Single Review (2008)

A single review for AltSounds.com.

Once upon a time, Emo used to be the music of the US. Young American bands dominated the scene from Green Day to Bowling For Soup to New Found Glory and UK bands didn't even try to compete. Ever since Busted appeared with their infectious brand of Brit-emo-pop, the genre has been wide open. This has lead to bands like Lostprophets, and more recently Proceed, to venture into this new world bringing in heavier guitars and a more mature sound. To counteract this respectability, and in the wake of Busted, we have the mighty McFly. With the industry in the palms of their grubby little hands, they backed off into the safety of mainstream pop. Why? Because the UK cannot do Emo. Not in its purest, exuberant and vibrant form. But now there is You Me At Six.

'Jealous Minds Think Alike' gets right into the action with a torrent of crashing drums and squealing guitars. Lead singer Josh Franceschi comes in as the music predictably drops. His voice is not as whiny and as nasal as you would expect - it has a wonderful resonance and he sings with urgency and passion. The uplifting chorus soon appears: "You can be the ghost in my hall. You can be the smile I don't want. I'll be the fly on your wall". Franceschi quickly shrugs off the metaphors and gets straight to the point for the second half: "You can be the distance in between. You can be everything I need. You'll be the girl I don't call". A typical well put anti-love song, full of controlled angst designed to make us sympathise (and empathise) with the subject. So far so good. Another chorus, more thumping drums and two and half minutes later, the song threatens to run out of steam. Franceschi gives us a couple of seconds of earnest crooning before the big outro.

The big problem You Me At Six will face is individuality. With such a strict genre and the necessity to push the right buttons, the band have limited scope for expansion. Fans will expect, no demand, a huge barrage of guitars and drums followed by a delicate drop to some crooning vocals, then more of the same. That is the formula. But the key here is just a small amount of diversity and good songs. The sound is already there. At the end of the day no one is going to search for the hidden depths of musical talent while they are playing this loud and bouncing off the walls. This does what it does. And for this reason alone 'Jealous Minds Think Alike' is a decent lead single.

With a debut album waiting in the wings and much to prove, You Me At Six look and sound like an interesting prospect. But then again, the alternative is McFly. And none of us want that.

-- CS (for Altsounds.com)

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

LATER...with Jools Holland (Series 33, Show 1)

The end of the Live From Abbey Road series has coincided neatly with the start of the new series of LATER...with Jools Holland. And what a start to the series it is! A hugely varied and interesting show with the mighty Metallica and France's first lady Carla Bruni, one of my least favourite bands Kings Of Leon and rising star Nicole Atkins.

Friday set:
  • Kings Of Leon - Sex Of Fire
  • V. V. Brown - Crying Blood
  • Nicole Atkins - The Way It Is
  • Carla Bruni (Chat and duet with JH at the piano)
  • Metallica - Cyanide
  • Carla Bruni - L'amoureuse
  • Sway - Say It Twice
  • Kings Of Leon - On Call
  • Lars Ulrich (Chat with JH)
  • Nicole Atkins - Maybe Tonight
  • Carla Bruni - Tu Es Ma Came
  • V. V. Brown - Bottles
  • Kings Of Leon - Use Somebody
  • Metallica - Enter Sandman
Tuesday (Live) highlights
  • Sway with Lemar - Saturday Night Hustle
  • Tribute To Richard Wright
  • Metallica - The Day That Never Comes
It was a strange set order for the Friday show this week. I can see why but as Metallica got the biggest cheer and they dominated the intro music (always performed by the artists as they are introduced), the fact that the band did not open the show was a missed opportunity. They did close both shows though - and in style. Instead Kings Of Leon topped the bill and performed tracks from their new album: Sex of Fire and Use Somebody plus On Call from their previous record. They are a band I still do not get. At least singer Caleb no longer sounds like Cartman from South Park (most of the time) and this music seems to be their best since Molly's Chambers (the only decent song from their weak debut). The highlight is Use Somebody which has a very British Sea Power feel about it with some great vocals.

The big star of the show was definitely Carla Bruni - a huge scoop for JH and the show. After a chat about influences (Dylan and Bessy Smith), and some praise from Jools for her record sales pre-fame from being French first lady, it didn't take him long to get behind the piano for a duet of Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out. Her English singing voice is genuinely good. She performed two French songs from her new album: L'amoureuse and the sexy Tu Es Ma Came (You Are My Drug). It was all typically evocative and is exactly what you would expect but also very simple and elegant. Some great acoustic guitars.

For me (and it will come as no surprise) Metallica stole the show but it all felt like a bit of a novelty act - like those middle-of-the-road loving mainstream DJs who claim to like heavy rock and metal and then play some clichéd AC/DC or Iron Maiden before going back to the safty of The Feeling and The Hoosiers. Anyway, for me they were immense on the Friday with Cyanide and then closing proceedings with Enter Sandman, complete with new start and big ending. On the Tuesday they had to wait until the end to close out with The Day That Never Comes which was a slightly uneasy mix of loud and quiet, with a few dodgy moments, and a huge instrumental ending. Lars took some time to chat with Jools about keeping the band's Grammys in his attic and the time he came to the UK to see his favourite band (at the time) Diamondhead while living in the US. They were the main inspiration for Metallica and he slept on the lead singer's couch for a few months.

A big surprise was Nicole Atkins, a singer from New Jersey. She only had two songs and started with impressive The Way It Is. Her big single Maybe Tonight is currently doing the rounds and she sounds like a more enthused Sophie Ellis-Bexter. She always looks lost in her own world. Thankfully another new singer V. V. Brown only had two songs. Her first, Crying Blood (which contains the classic line: "tears from my eyes..." repeated ad nausem - where else could she be crying from?) is insane, her vocals all over the place in the pursuit of trying to sound a bit different. I have no idea when she breathes. Her second offering Bottles was truly awful.

After the Tuesday performance from MOBO star Sway with Lemar (Saturday Night Hustle) I was expecting more of the same rubbish from the self proclaimed best British rapper. But his centre piece on Friday's show Say It Twice was really great. He walked around the studio and managed to namedrop everyone while freestyling. I was unsure if he said 'shout out to Metallica' or told them to 'shut up'. I think it must have been the former. He was arrogant and full of himself but extremely confident and genuinely good. It's a shame that the Tuesday performance was so lame.

A great start to the best music show on television. And next week is (the award winning) Elbow!

Royworld - Brakes Single Review (2008)

One that slipped through the net. I wrote this a while ago but no one seemed to know when it was being released. So when it was added to The Music Magazine site, I missed it. I'm not a huge fan of the band but I tried to be honest and open-minded. They have a great song, they just need more new songs.

The review:

It is always good when a band release a few singles before a debut album but it can work against them. Royworld are on the verge of what should be major success with a trio of singles including the very impressive, if chart-topping and formulaic, ‘Dust’. Now the band release ‘Brakes’ which is more of the same, only not as good.

‘Brakes’ opens with a simple acoustic guitar melody before Rod Futrille’s gravely, yet soft, vocals come in. The chorus is a curious thing. In two parts it has Futrille sounding, ironically, like Olly Knights from Turin Brakes in a reworking of ‘Painkiller’. The first part works well, complimented with more frenetic guitars, but the second borders on mediocrity. The problem is it has all been done before - the big opening “yeah” and sing-a-long predictable lyrics: “This is your life / Don’t you cry, coz it’s alright / As we dance for the last time…” with every strained extended emotional syllable. This formula is repeated until the fade at the second repetition to make a convenient three and a bit minutes. It is the kind of music Feeder have been making for years with a lot more success.

‘Dust’ may be typical radio-friendly pop, but it was a brilliant debut. Even the other singles ‘Man In The Machine’ and ‘Elasticity’, which both sound like they have been done many times before, are more interesting. ‘Brakes’ tries desperately to capture the big sound of ‘Dust’ but never gets there. With only one album it may be too early to tell but so far Royworld appear to be a one hit wonder.
-- CS (for The Music Magazine)

Monday, 22 September 2008

Matt Wertz - Under Summer Sun Album Review (2008)

A review for AltSounds.com.

Every so often an album comes along that makes you smile. It makes you smile because it reminds you that there is hope in a dark world, a light at the end of the scary tunnel and a comforting arm around your shivering shoulder. 'Under Summer Sun' tries very hard to be THAT album. After nearly eight years of life as an independent, US singer songwriter Matt Wertz has made an unsteady leap to a major label. Curiously the album is a collection of previously released songs plus a few extras. If you don't know the back catalogue, you would not know the old songs from the new - such is the blend of styles and sounds. Even though everything fits together, at times this feels like an anthology of songs and not a free-flowing piece of work. But Matt Wertz is at home writing small punchy breezy pop rather than huge rumbling epics, and this style is present throughout.

The highlights of 'Under Summer Sun' are undoubtedly the more upbeat songs. Opener 'Everything's Right' is wonderful bouncy guitar pop enhanced with distant electronica. The simple joyous chorus is perfect. Even a blast of busy banjo late on is a toe-tapping moment. 'Carolina' kicks off with hillbilly guitars and transforms into a comfortable slice of country-pop. It sounds very like early Ryan Adams. Likewise 'Marianne', a more acoustic offering has the same effect with added guitar break. A vocal montage breaks things up before a solid ending. The title track (of sorts) 'Summer Sun' is more funky; an upbeat love song complete with big drums and cheesy chord changes. These songs all have the desired effect - that warm fuzzy feeling that music can be as deep and meaningful as it is empty-headed. The key is finding the balance. 'Red Meets Blue' does this well and gets by thanks to a guitar and keyboard melody, especially at the end.

The few problem areas arise when Wertz strays from his boundaries. There are no real bad moments that make you demand a return to the goodness - things simply get too safe and predictable. The songs are too short to get truly mind-numbingly boring and tedious. The jazz-funk 'The Way I Feel' almost works but the vocals get rough and dirty. Elsewhere Wertz has a magnificent voice. Then there are too many handclaps and too much ending. '5:19' is too light and airy, a middle of the road take on Michael Bublé with a chorus that never gives the lift it promises. One of the worse moments is the slack and obvious 'Keep Faith' summed up by the lyrics: "When the days drag on and you're barely breathing..."; it echoes the slow lazy guitars, handclaps and harmonies. It is too nice. The late organ gives a lift but it is too little too late.

There are a few interesting attempts at something different. 'I Will Not Take My Love Away' is a gorgeous hymn; a prayer with a simple arrangement. The delicate 'Waiting' is also good but would benefit from being much longer. "I'm the only one here growing old...growing old but not quite growing up" is a great line but the song never lives up to early potential, choosing not to build up but to drift away. Closing song 'Back In June' could be good, with a pleasant duet for lead vocals but it never gets going. And 'With You, Tonight' suffers terribly from overuse; a big dumb chorus creeps up on you and then explodes with a fizzle, like a wet firework. The boring guitars are more prominent than some of the more subtle arrangements.

Wertz says in his biography: "I love being independent...If I succeed or fail, it's not based upon someone else's decisions, but my own. I like the freedom and ownership that comes from keeping things small and in-house". A move to a major label can be a big deal, or it can be as if nothing has changed. Given that so much of 'Under Summer Sun' is recycled, this is obviously a promotional record designed to bring in new fans while trying not to cheat current loyal supporters. It is unclear if the latter has been achieved. This means that for Wertz, and for now, his important major label debut is not 'Under Summer Sun', but his next album.

-- CS (for AltSounds.com)

Mogwai - The Hawk Is Howling

My review for the latest (superb) Mogwai album The Hawk Is Howling has made album of the week for The Music Magazine :)

Friday, 19 September 2008

Charli XCX - !Francheskaar! Single Review (2008)

When I was sent this unrequested single by Altsounds.com, as part of another CD bundle, I gave it a chance and then on hearing it, nearly sent it back. But it is infectious and catchy and more original than it first sounds. My big problem is that Charli is only fifteen and has a lot of time ahead of her. She doesn't want to let her embrassing past ruin a promising career.

The review:

We have to face up to reality: Pop stars are getting younger. With the latest participants of X-Factor typically still in school, it is no wonder that someone like Charli XCX exists - and more importantly has been noticed by a record label and 'snapped up' early. With a mixture of spurious retro fashion statements and a simplistic vocal style, this 15 year old girl from the home counties is a bit too over eager to shake off the 'posh' tag and do something different. The effect is more Lily Allen than Duffy; like Hannah Montana if she was a Grange Hill exchange student.

The appallingly titled '!Francheskaar!' opens with some neat buzzing electronica. For six seconds, the song is acceptable and then it really starts. The basic structure is to intertwine the lines of the verses with a horrible incessant repeating of the central subject. It plagues much of the arrangement to the point that an actual drill in the side of your head quickly becomes a viable alternative. After thirty seconds or so Charli dispenses with the mockney rapping and genuinely tries to sing. It almost works. And after a while the formula becomes infectious; the slightly bitter playground tale of a popular girl getting all of the attention gets under your skin.

The single is packaged with four re-mix versions, giving the whole thing an even more retro feel. The Tapedeck version simply takes elements from the original and does an awful 'cut n paste' job. The first part of the Lil'd Lucky Boy cut is very good and then we are suddenly reminded of where we are as the song title is repeated over and over ad nausem. The more toned down 'respect, the beat' remix from Mr Black is a much better attempt. It benefits from a lot more production and a slicker sound. It would probably make a more credible single than the original.

'!Francheskaar!' is a frustrating paradox, as annoying as it is compelling. If it wasn't taking itself so seriously it would fit the 'it's so bad, it's good' category. You have to believe that there is someone genuinely talented trying to do something worthwhile. Lyrically, this could not get more simple: "They all love you... They all want you... Of Course they do... Oh yes it's true". But getting a message across is not as important as making a statement. At the risk of being patronising, Charli XCX is likely to be a huge star when she grows up. The main problem here is from a credibility standpoint this is not a great start. Onward to bigger and better things.

-- CS (for Altsounds.com)

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

My Epic - I Am Undone Album Review (2008)

A review for Altsounds.com.

This is one of those bands (and albums) that only reveals its true nature when you sit down and listen and read through the sleeve notes etc. A truly remarkable band with a determination and spiritual focus.

The review:

Spirituality and rock have never been the happiest of bed-fellows. It conjures up images of smiling clapping teenagers swaying to the music of a pristine white-clad acoustic guitar band, lost in the euphoria. Music seems to lose all credibility when religion takes over. North Carolina three-piece My Epic do not assume this unfortunate stereotype. On the surface they look and sound like just another melodic-rock outfit blending guitars and drums with thought-provoking lyrics and ideas. Far from it. The band has an inner vision driven by their truly spiritual ideals and this permeates everything they do - a blatant yet honest heartfelt celebration of what drives them, 'I Am Undone' is as sombre as it is uplifting.

My Epic has a distinct vocal style, at best it is focused and emotional but this tends to veer into the mournful and the melancholy. This just adds to the overall submissive nature of the band, fully aware of a higher purpose at work; a guiding light not to be abused but to be respected (even the pronouns 'You', 'Your' and 'Him' appear in the lyrics as rightfully capitalised). Whenever the music threatens to take over, it holds back and is continually restrained. A tendency to build up to a huge swathe of guitars and shouty vocals would be predictable and formulaic but the album would occasionally benefit from this approach. The music certainly suffers at the expense of the vocal and lyrical content.

When the band is in full flow, it really works. 'The Lover And The Thief' is beautifully level and controlled, a huge song with a great second half build-up to a crescendo that never happens. The guitar work and falsetto vocals form the high point and a wonderful string arrangement brings in a very subdued ending. Following track 'Perelandra' (a second reference to C.S. Lewis) is a Mogwai-esque four minute instrumental; very expressive but gets bogged down with repetition. On two occasions it begins to flow but then pulls back. 'Men In Little Houses' is the most 'complete' song: from the soaring guitars and unusually strict structure, a torrent of vocals lead up to a quiet interlude before another restrained outro. The message is clear: "And prudent hearts will find that there is beauty in the mystery of life. We are so small". Penultimate song, simply named '-' is also impressive, cumulating with the line "My God, I am not but You are". Why this is not the song title is anyone's guess. It is one of the only pieces to build up to a noisy guitar ending from delicate beginnings. The formula is paradoxically refreshing as it adds much needed structure to proceedings.

Elsewhere the album is consistent but steers the same dogmatic course. 'Communion' is very much the centrepiece and should by rights be the title track instead of such an obvious reference. The vocal arrangement, very reminiscent of 'Stairway To Heaven', builds to the line 'I am undone' with simple music and gorgeous voices. In spite of these positives, the entire song would benefit from a much bigger production. Ironically 'You Became I' could be lighter and for the most part sounds like a bad imitation of Coheed & Cambria; too heavy in places, particularly the end. Opening song 'Prologue' (no extra points for invention here) is a good choral introduction, designed to focus the listener before the solid 'The Oil Press'. 'You Know We All Love You' is a short noisy pointless mess - the only truly bad song. This is followed by the cracking vocals of 'Our Little Girl', a persistent dirge of loose structure with a weak inner beauty. Closing song 'It's at Times Like This That I Realize Survival is Not Enough' is a brave vocal experiment but only highlights some insufficiencies.

'I Am Undone' may not be the best musical work ever but as a pure celebration of hope and penitence there is nothing quite like it. Each song unfolds as a prayer; an outpouring of emotion and praise. The juxtaposition of such strong lyrics and an almost 'metal' sound and image is a striking combination but My Epic never descend into just layering heavy riffs with a multitude of instruments. They prefer to use vocal arrangements, albeit with mixed results and often to the detriment of the musical compositions, to convey a clear unhindered message. Being pro-establishment in a world of bands that constantly twist and poke religious imagery is admirable but the way in which the music is presented will remain a problem. My Epic are preachers without evangelism for these ever changing times.
-- CS (for AltSounds.com)

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Live From Abbey Road (Show 12, Series 2 - 12/09/2008)

Time for another Live From Abbey Road... this week the line-up looked more interesting than it probably could be. Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson is a strange prospect - I went into the show with as open a mind as possible, and two solo artists from wonderful musical families: Martha Wainwright and Teddy Thompson. And at last the show breaks the usual mould with a special duet to end.

The set:

Brian Wilson
  • Sloop John B.
  • Southern California
  • God Only Knows
Martha Wainwright
  • Bleeding All Over You
  • You Cheated Me
  • Comin' Tonight
Teddy Thompson
  • In My Arms
  • Don't Know What I Was Thinking
Martha Wainwright and Teddy Thompson
  • We Can Work It Out
I am not sure where to start with Brian Wilson. The man is a legend but why he continues to ply his trade is frustrating. He is obviously full of energy and love for music but he is not the fighting force he once was. Not by a long shot. His voice is a real problem and a noticeable weak link in his new band. The band is a credible well-intentioned group of individuals designed to simulate the former sound and not be The Beach Boys. The result of all this, I am sad to say, is a pale imitation. Wilson sits calmly in the middle of the fun loving, banter filled room staying focused but looks like he is lost in his own nostalgic world. 'Sloop John B' has a bad start so the huge entourage start again. It is a decent enough version with a great arrangement but the vocals are weak. Much better is non-BB song and plug for Wilson's new album 'That Lucky Old Sun' called 'Southern California'. It is better because there is nothing to compare it to. The end is a bit of a let down as it seems to build up to a vocal outro but just stops. They finish with the classic 'God Only Knows', again a massive disappointment with Wilson doing his best to hit the high notes and the band providing the harmonies. The introduction of a female singer in the band helps this but it is not what it should be. In some brief interview footage Brian explains that Rubber Soul influenced the Pet Sounds album and that people are more sensitive to art than Americans, trying to explain the success of his former band around the world. The fact that Brian Wilson is still alive, let alone making new music, is a considerable feat. But you can't help feeling that he is slowly losing his grip on the few skills he still has.

Martha Wainwright is becoming a successful brand. Living in the shadow of a successful father and mother and brother and forever being referred to as the fourth musician in the family, it has been a difficult road. I think she is better than Rufus but that is just my acquired taste. In between getting her nails retouched and a make-up session, and after restringing her guitar, she proficiently performs three songs from her difficult second album: 'Bleeding All Over You', 'You Cheated Me' and 'Comin' Tonight'. A decent set but she introduces the latter as an old song reworked for a new album - and that she needed strong songs. But the arrangement of the song is terrible with a weak thin piano. So it is all a bit dull. What doesn't help is she messes up at the start and they begin again (the second of the show). This just highlights again that this isn't a live performance show but a recording session with a number of different takes. What they gain by showing the screw ups I'm not sure. A poor end to an otherwise good set.

Like Wainwright, Teddy Thompson has to live up to his famous parents: Linda and Richard. He hold his own very well and describes his folks as 'two of our finest' with earnest pride. He performs latest single 'In My Arms' and then 'Don't Know What I Was Thinking'; the latter a much better vocal. He has a great voice and his music has a very Americana feel. He refers to The Beatles as a huge influence even though he is a London boy. Only two songs which is a shame but a quick preview before an Ad break reveals a surprise encore for both Thompson and Wainwright...

The two prodigies are re-introduced practising 'We Can Work It Out' at a piano - which is strange as Thompson is playing a guitar and no piano is involved. Martha tells him she feels at home leaning over a piano, back to the family days. They are good friends so the collaboration works incredibly well. Thompson lifts the key of his voice a touch and the two sing well together. If anything MW is a bit rushed at the end but a simple arrangement and a solid performance shines through. A great bonus even if the choice of song is a bit predictable.

A very entertaining show and lots to write about which is always a good thing. More new duets would be great but I suppose an entire show of Beatles covers would be too obvious and yield mixed results. Something between the two is an acceptable compromise?

Monday, 15 September 2008

Attic Lights - Friday Night Lights Album Review (2008)

Interesting band...but not a great album. Another review for Altsounds.

The review:

Attic Lights are the next big Scottish harmony-guitar band. They have already released a few impressive singles, been a huge hit on the festival circuit - making headlines for befriending David Gest, and enlisted the help of Teenage Fanclub drummer Francis MacDonald for production and Bjorn Yttling for strings. Vocals form the core of their songs with Kev Sherry and Colin McArdle sharing the duties, with backing and harmonies from the rest of the band. 'Friday Night Lights' is the band's debut album.

The album opens with its strongest trio of songs. A previous single 'Never Get Sick Of The Sea' kicks off with guitars and pounding drums before the vocals join in. It all works up to the chorus which sounds like there are some notes missing or the record is skipping. It is a very disjointed melody. Beyond the wash of guitars and vocals, a neat piano can be heard. The song only really comes alive at the end as the last minute shines with tuneful exuberance. A solid start. 'Bring You Down' is the band's big single, a startling atmospheric antithesis to the dark overtones of recent kinsmen Glasvegas. A strong chorus shows off the talented harmonies and the overall effect is like The Thrills if only they could write decent songs... and sing them. The big finale is introduced with a semi-talky section with Sherry declaring "I'm hopelessly devoted, I'm voting for the hopeless tonight...". The big guitars and strings crash in and there is a slightly rushed vocal ending. Completing the trilogy, 'Wendy' opens with a swathe of strings and guitars. It takes no time to get to another simple poppy chorus. Rhyming 'over' with 'October' and then 'told her' will not win any awards but it works. The song has a brief instrumental section of strings, heavy guitars and then more strings. A gorgeous vocal performance from the band, coupled with more huge strings (they really get the most from Bjorn Yttling here) form the fading outro. Wonderful stuff.

So after a strong start, what is left is a more eclectic mix of styles and sounds. 'Dark Eyes' is a delicate piano-led ballad with gravely vocals. Over half way through a short two minutes and forty four seconds, the band appear to provide a lift but only serve to transform the song into the safe and predictable. When it settles down again, the gruff vocals return with: "I walk around Glasgow streets silently tonight" accompanied by piano. Pleasant enough but like most of the album, way too short.

The album's other big single 'God' is a much needed high point in the middle of the album - a vibrant guitar-led pseudo-emo ditty about a frustrating relationship. Some great lyrics show off the band's quirky side: "So long, I have to get my jacket. This queue, feels like I'm caught in traffic. The doubt starts to hit me like rain, I'll never see her again". All this and a great guitar sound accompany the very Teenage Fanclub sounding vocal production. The stuttering end makes Sherry and crew sound like a bunch of stalkers as they repeat "I waited outside for her, she never waited for me...".

At worse the album gets desperately dull. 'Nothing But Love' does very little with a tired sound, staying well within the band's comfort zone. Annoyingly the song grinds to a halt on two occasions, the second time making way for an agonisingly slow outro which just prolongs the experience. It picks up at the end but then runs out of steam. 'Walkie Talkie' is equally empty and just glides through the motions. The songs also fail to impress when it gets too clever. 'The Dirty Thirst' is a spurious take on a Fountains Of Wayne tribute/parody with some funny yet strange lyrics. 'Late Night Sunshine' uses the same trick, this time in cheesy ballad mode but without a decent chorus.

The closing song 'Winter On', the album's longest song at just over four minutes, is another mid-temp crawl. The lead vocal sounds like Tim Wheeler on a bad day. What should be a passionate and heart-felt moment turns into some awfully whiny vocals, emotional piano and dig drums. The second half turns into Embrace (remember them?) with the whole band singing and swaying to "Hey baby, do you ever think of me? Hey baby, when the rain is pouring down your street. Hold on to the things you wanted me to keep. Hey baby, you're the cause of me...". It is an earnest and brave attempt to finish the album in style.

It is unusual, but as a 'vocal' group Attic Lights are a little rough around the edges. With MacDonald on production duties, the band find an acceptable compromise between precise choral harmonies and a late night drink-fuelled sing-a-long. Vocally, in part due to the shared resources of Sherry and McArdle, the songs shimmer with variety. But there is a tendency to simply fill the empty spaces with lots of wordless backing vocals ('Walkie Talkie' being the worst culprit) only contributing to the overall upbeat feel. 'Friday Night Lights' is also stacked too high with the best songs, highlighting the band's typical sound. From there it is a confusion of influences and ideas that lead to a severe lack of consistency and identity.

A promising start but Attic Lights need to do a lot more than just be David Gest's favourite festival band.
-- CS (for Altsounds.com)

Richard Wright (1943-2008)

Richard Wright, founding member and keyboard player of Pink Floyd has died, aged 65.


Saturday, 13 September 2008

Metallica - Death Magnetic Album Review (2008)

This is without a doubt the album I have been waiting for all year. It has been a long time since the mighty Metallica made an album and the last one was not great. So I jumped at the change when it was offered by The Music Magazine. Huge thanks again to SC :)

The review:

Back when bands like Mötley Crüe and Aerosmith were redefining the LA heavy metal scene with big hair and tight jeans, Metallica simply got on with the job. They became a more viable alternative to their untouchable peers; a dirty, down-to-earth, 'everyman' metal band. After the promising debut 'Kill 'Em All', Metallica ruled the decade. Between 1984 and 1988 they made three albums, peaking with the monumental 'Master Of Puppets' - a rock album with just about everything from mind-bogglingly fast drums and speed guitars to orchestral strings. From here, an evolving music scene brought in a change to the band. Every great institution from Queen to U2 has faced these moments which often bring about mixed results. The key is to stay true to your roots. Change is one thing but you won't keep fans if you stop being 'you'.

In the '90s Metallica did not change as such, they transformed. The eponymous 'Black' album is a masterpiece, fusing the old with the new to create a more subdued modern rock sound while retaining the trademark Metallica style. Out went the massive speed metal guitars and in came delicate strings and slower arrangements. Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett shines and no album since has captured the same brilliance. The last few years of the decade saw the inevitable live albums, box sets and even a collection of cover versions. Guitarist/singer James Hetfield even flirted with orchestral arrangements in the great 'S&M' album and DVD. It looked like one of the world's most revered bands were growing old gracefully.

But the band were in a mess. Drink and drugs threatened to create an irreparable rift between the two egos of Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich. Bassist Jason Newsted quit the band just as they were on the verge of recording a new album. The idea was to document the making of the album but this resulted in a massive 'group therapy' session which put Hetfield into rehab. The album 'St. Anger' was eventually recorded and released along with the very public 'Some Kind Of Monster'. As absurd as it seemed, the warts-and-all documentary worked. Unfortunately the album did not. It is a one-dimensional, stuttering, unfocused mess; a brave yet futile attempt to redefine a dying genre...and a dying band.

Now with Robert Trujillo on bass, who has one of the hardest jobs in rock: to be heard over Hetfield, Ulrich and specifically Hammett, and a new reinvigorated desire to make music, Metallica has finally made a ninth studio album. After all the tantrums, the therapy, the schism and the egos, the music has survived. The band has emerged scarred but fighting and the new songs are a brutal assault of the senses; a deliberate well-executed counter-attack. Twenty years since they ruled the world and they now sound better than ever.

'Death Magnetic' has a startling and immediate impact. Credit has to be given to new producer Rick Rubin. Granted previous helmsman Bob Rock got the band through the '90s and produced the Black album but by then the band were out of control. Rubin's clear and focused approach, largely aimed at Hetfield and Ulrich, has brought them back from the edge. 'Death Magnetic' sounds like everyone involved went back to listen to 'Ride The Lightning', deconstructed it, worked out how and why it worked, produced a series of mathematical formulae using highly regarded physicists and computers, and discovered the secrets of how to make a new 'metal' album. The result is an enormous technically accomplished master class. It is not quite 'metal by numbers' but the relentless precision and meticulous planning often distracts from the utter brilliance of the music.
From the opening bars of 'That Was Just Your Life', starting with a heartbeat and the eerie combination of creepy guitars; then the huge crashing drums and thrashing guitars, you know this is a Metallica album. It is not that all the music sounds identical - that is just a misguided stereotype - the band have a sound which transcends every song, every riff, every drum strike, every word and every chord. The sound of Metallica washes through everything like a haunting ethereal entity. The effect is exactly what James Hetfield experiences: when the music starts, the world just goes away. By his own admission, this is his new drug.

The main guitar riff of 'The End Of The Line' is astonishing. Hetfield and Ulrich work together to add the machine guns, drilling the sound into your skull. After the remarkably tuneful build up, the chorus is a bit of a let down as Hetfield uses his old trick of just slowing down his voice at the end in time with the drums. He is openly recalling his former life: "Hooked into this deceiver, need more and more; Into the endless fever, need more and more". A network of guitars form a mid-point instrumental break before Hammett takes over, plunging his lead under water for his solo. More perplexing guitar work leads to another slow down and what threatens to be a slow melody outro. Hetfield comes back sounding like someone entirely different: "The slave becomes the master...". It is a fantastic end to an amazing song.

The most noticeable thing about 'Broken, Beat & Scarred' is the vocal arrangement. The music pales in comparison. The simple message is expressed with "The dawn, the death, the fight 'til the final breath. What don't kill you will make you more strong". Hetfield even provides his own backing vocals. A brief respite comes in the form of a guitar break, Hetfield first then Hammett letting loose - speeding up and slowing down. Ulrich, wanting in on the action, wades in but the duel is planned and controlled, choreographed more like a Yimou Zhang movie than WWE. 'The Day That Never Comes' is the album's 'everything' track and another major highlight. A slow build-up of simple guitar melody and pounding drums recall '...And Justice For All' before gliding into the same concept used on the 'Black' album. Hetfield uses his earnest vocals on the quiet parts and is equally majestic elsewhere, during the first half of the song. A thundering guitar duel brings a transformation and Hetfield declares: "Love is a four letter word..." before a different animal emerges. It is something of a tuneless lull until the thrash guitars and another excellent segmented solo from Hammett to end.

At the mid point 'All Nightmare Long' is a relentless eight minute charge, both musically and vocally, which descends into a series of 'let's see who can drum/strum/shout the fastest'. How the band will cope with this live is anyone's guess. This is followed by the more imaginative 'Cyanide' which bounces with the same energy but at least slows the tempo occasionally. Hetfield too is more controlled, only lifting for the choruses to match the drums. At the half way point, the song slows even more as the vocals lurk menacingly in between some chaotic guitar work. Hammett gets his solo (again!) before Ulrich fights him off then it is all back together for a rousing finish. The imaginatively titled 'The Unforgiven III' starts with gorgeous piano and horns leading into soft guitars and drums. When the band fully kick off, it feels a bit clumsy with Hetfield in uncomfortable story-telling mode. The song only serves as a respite from the barrage of guitars as it remains mid-tempo even into the last three minutes. When it quickly builds Hammett attempts to closes things with another frantic solo. But as always it is Hetfield who gets the last word, finishing the story.

Another great riff is at the core of 'The Judas Kiss'. Again this is an inspired vocal arrangement - Hetfield breaks from the usual monotone for some genuine melody. The mid section of the song gets bogged down in some more duelling guitar play before Hammett emerges victorious for an uncompromising solo. This is only broken by Hetfield declaring "Judas lives, recite this vow. I've become your new God now!". Somehow you feel inclined to believe him. The guitars continue, on the edge of going supersonic before the vocals return with extra vitriol and menace. An interesting eight minutes of twists and turns.

The penultimate song is a real surprise: 'Suicide & Redemption' is soaring ten minute instrumental. From the outset it is more a marathon than a sprint, arranged in several movements and reaching an early high point two minutes in when Hetfield is joined by an exquisite sub-riff from Hammett. Without a voice, they are both equally expressive. All this is underpinned by Ulrich's drums, sounding both laboured and controlled. The next chapter of the song and Hammett treats us to a Satriani-esque glide before the frenzy builds once more into more vocal guitars. Trujillo's bass pushes to the front as the guitars return, a brief respite before Hammett explodes again into arguably his best solo of the album. This is like an entire album in one song with all the tracks mashed together to form one giant sensory assault. The music revisits previous themes, adds in new riffs, drum arrangements (the last two minutes is owned by Ulrich) and reworked ideas, before returning full circle. The decision to omit vocals is both strange and inspired - something the band has done before but never with this precision. Both guitarists are supreme and for once equal weighting is given to everyone involved. Marvellous.

The album closes with 'My Apocalypse'. The frenzy of guitars and drums never let up for a second and the band are fast and furious right to the end. If anything it feels a bit revisited and isolated, removed from the rest. On an album that is over an hour long with songs of seven minutes, this five minute encore could be easily removed.

'Death Magnetic' will naturally be hailed as a massive return to form but is more a regression to find what worked in the first place. Much has been made of Hammett's trademark solos (missing on 'St. Anger') but for the most part instead of gliding and soaring they creep up and are stamped down in place. They are furious and outstandingly complex but at the same time, annoyingly rushed - yes this is thrash metal but it all sounds a bit forced. Likewise Hetfield may pull few punches with his vocals but he is not a great wordsmith. He often regresses into simply spitting words at us: "Violate, annihilate; Obliterate, exterminate" and "Choke, Asphyxia, Snuff reality; Reaper, Butchery, Karma amputee" are typical 'metal friendly' offerings. The main thing with Hetfield is that ultimately his words do not matter; it is his voice that is important, an acceptable compromise between soft rock crooning and a post-hardcore death metal growl. For the first time all writing credit for the music (Hetfield exclusively writes the lyrics) is attributed to all band members. This comes through in the coherence of the songs and the high level of musicianship. This is not the band's best work but it is damn close and after the problems with 'St. Anger' this is a huge achievement.

Metallica may not win any new fans with 'Death Magnetic' but they sure as hell will get the old ones back.

-- CS (for The Music Magazine)

Rosie And The Goldbug - Lover Single Review (2008)

To go with the album review, here is a review of 'Lover' for The Music Magazine.

I'm glad I reviewed the album first. I would have quite a different single review otherwise.

The review:

'Lover' is the lead song from Rosie And The Goldbug's eponymous debut album and not quite representative of the band's sound and self-realised projected image. Quoting Siouxsie and The Banshees, The Cure and Kate Bush as influences and wanting desperately not to be just another 'indie guitar band', it is more commercial and mainstream than you might expect. It is this paradox that is a source of intrigue. Is there more to Rosie And The Goldbug than gothic demeanour and a love for wind swept lonely Cornish moors?

For a band which does not have a lead guitarist it seems to go against well established principles to use one. But 'Lover' is driven forward by bassist Pixie who provides a persistent backing to the usually more prominent piano, keyboards and drums. For the first minute there is a more subdued arrangement with Rosie's voice the more striking; with sultry overtones, she sings "I love the way you move; want to get inside of you. Please make me safe again, please make me safe again...". The polished echo on the chorus as she repeats the song's title is too predictable and when the full instrumentation comes in, the relentless guitar and drum sound flattens everything. Thankfully this is not a problem for long as the ideas begin to flow. A keyboard melody joins in for the next verse, followed by a blast of stomping piano, then a short drum solo (from the ever present and dynamic Plums) in which the guitars build again for the rousing, if slightly tuneless, finale. It is a shame that the lyrics simply repeat without the same kind of flow and invention as the music.

As a single, 'Lover' is both radio friendly and a good advert for the album - two very important and much needed traits. However the song misrepresents the band's overall sound which is a dangerous and slightly baffling move. The last thing you want to do is raise the expectations of fans with false promises. "Beware of supposed 'gothic art-punks' bearing 'indie guitar-driven' gifts".
-- CS (for The Music Magazine)

Friday, 12 September 2008

Rosie And The Goldbug - Rosie And The Goldbug Album Review (2008)

An album review for The Music Magazine.

I do like this band but I decided to focus on their image as well as the music (not a very original idea as other people are taking the same line - but it is an important point). There is an inherent paradox here between what the band sound like and how they look. Their website is a wonderfully spooky gothic world instead of just a some plain text which is easy to read and navigate through. On the record, at best they sound like just another indie band - some good tunes, structure, arrangements, solid vocals etc, but at worse they sound like they are trying too hard to be weird. I may be a bit obsessed with this but it is an interesting exploration into why bands do this sort of thing.

The review:

Image is a wonderful thing. Forming a band is not always just about getting together a group of like-minded individuals and free thinking souls - it is often centred around creating an image. The whole is every bit as important as the constituent parts so why shouldn't a band be a defined entity in its own right? The name Rosie And The Goldbug, courtesy of Edgar Allan Poe, sets up the exterior mood and demeanour of the gothic trio. Dwelling in deepest darkest Cornwall beside the lonely wilds of Bodmin Moor, the band plied their trade without the distractions of television, friends or money. It conjures up a wonderful image of a lost world in which to explore; to create and realise your art. The only thing strange about this is that Rosie And The Goldbug are not as strange as they appear.

The absence of a lead guitar in the band is one of the most endearing traits. The sound is created from a stark combination of piano, drums (from Plums who is mainly excellent throughout) and bass so the music is defined and separated. Coupled with the striking vocals of lead singer Rosie Vanier and a fourth instrument is introduced, while retaining the freedom and space to breathe. The production is a lot more polished than you would expect, both good and bad. But there is a tendency to rely on empty vocals and buzzing electronica rather than melody driven instrumentation or swathes of strings. This approach is frustrating.

'Rosie And The Goldbug' opens with the debut single 'Lover' - the least typical song on the album mainly due to guitarist Pixie swapping his bass for rhythm. The sound washes through everything and overshadows delicate piano and keyboard arrangements. For a band who benefit from a much more striped down set-up, this doesn't feel right (and seems to immediately go against the band's ethos to be the antithesis to, as the band put it, 'boring old indie guitar wank') . That said, it is a well constructed pop song. Described as a cross between Kate Bush and Allison Goldfrapp, Rosie's vocals are more Wendy James, and even then it is not accurate - her voice is a hybrid of many different influences resulting in something entirely unique. It keeps the ordinary interesting.

From this slightly misleading start, the album meanders through a series of niggling inconsistencies. 'War of The Roses (Because You Said So)' is punchy punk-pop melodrama about failed romance and falling out over food choices: "With your peaches and your strawberries and your double cream; bananas in the fridge. You can't eat for more than a week and it's all gone off so I threw it in the bin". The echoey vocal ending is a neat touch but quickly spoiled by more of the same stomp. There are few dodgy moments but none more so than the horrible 'Butterfly'. Everything about the song does not work: the opening drums, the piano, the wordless vocals, the nursery rhyme feel, the screaming and operatic mock-Sparks vibe, the obvious lyrics. And at nearly two minutes, things get worse as Rosie shouts incoherently. It is a vacuous pointless mess.

Back on course after the early stumble, 'Feeling' is more Tori Amos than Kate Bush, letting a persistent piano drive it forward. The vocals on the chorus are exquisite but do veer toward the wailing at times. The artificial sounding 'Heartbreak' only escapes its flat structure on the chorus, a repetitive yet engaging vocal exercise. The pace throughout is relentless. Rosie goes robotic for a few lines and then a gorgeous cello transforms the keyboards into something more real. Annoyingly it is far too short but when the rest of the band return, a fantastic vocal arrangement fills the senses. Even the synth ending works.

'Soldier Blues' is two minutes of spooky build up into a minute and a half of sustained dramatic theatre. But the empty vocals are lazy and unnecessary. 'Contain You' provides one of Rosie's best vocals, particularly on the chorus, and the band stay just the right side of disappearing into the world of 'symphonic metal'. The backing is filed with more vibrant vocals and another strong outro provides a lift. The wonderful 'You've Changed' at last uses the wordless vocal to great effect, borrowing from 'Hounds Of Love' (more a tribute than a rip-off). It is about as far from the band's image as it gets, capturing more pop light than goth darkness. Even the 'talky bit' end is forgiven.

Into the last trilogy and the feeling is that the creative process is running out of ideas. 'Strange Girl' is one simple piano riff and lots of operatic attention-seeking. Within all the pomp is a decent song but it is nothing new. Much more subdued is 'In The Red', even when the drums and buzzy keyboards wade in Rosie keeps the vocals under control. The layered vocal chorus has a beguiling effect, distracting from the main voice. By the end it could just be a lost single from No Doubt. Closing song 'Springtime Dreaming' is a safe but not entirely predictable ending. Instead of a huge rousing finale, the band choose a small subtle slice of poetry with minimal accompaniment. The vocals are world-weary and reflective as Rosie croons lines like: "I look through window panes, at a grass like a lion's mane; and the blue sky is rich with light and my heart beats full of life. And I wish for all my dreams...". It sounds like it was written in her more impressionable teenage years and now reluctantly resurrected. A brave attempt at an honest ballad but lacking any lasting impact.

Rosie And The Goldbug has created a good but fairly ordinary debut album. The band constantly veer towards synth-pop and opera in order to sound a bit weird rather than keeping things organic. When it is allowed to breathe, the piano takes a welcome centre stage and Rosie needs to control her voice which is much better when levelled and focused. The main problem, apart from being a solid collection of songs ruined by one lack of judgement (the woeful 'Butterfly'), is such a strong projected image. It remains a thin façade. Behind all the gothic overtones, darkness and black eyeliner, Rosie And The Goldbug are not as mysterious as they think they are.

-- CS (for The Music Magazine)

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Elbow Win Mercury Music Prize 2008

'The Seldom Seen Kid' by Elbow has won the 2008 Mercury Music Prize. A worthy winner. I honestly thought it would go to Krauss and Plant for their collaboration. Afterwards on BBC Radio 2, Janice Long revealed the decision was 'almost unanimous' but a hard choice from three front runners. It was a strong year.

Guy accepted the award to a rousing reception and could not get a word in for a few minutes. He gave thanks for the band's agent and manager and 'all the players' that have been with them since day one. The acceptance speech was short and to the point:

"This is the best thing to happen to us".

They dedicated the award to Bryan Glancy, musician and friend, who died in 2006.

The bookies favourite Burial did not even attend the event - so that must have influenced the organisers in some way.

Laurel Collective - International Love Affair Single Review

Again not my choice but another single review for The Music Magazine.

The review:

International Love Affair is the lead song from Laurel Collective's mini album 'Feel Good Hits Of A Nuclear Winter'. The band is an intriguing UK six piece who combine traditional indie guitar music with vibrant electronics and bass. The sound is compelling and frustrating at the same time as a great idea is often spoiled by a need to be different.

The song opens with a blast of bog standard guitars, bass and drums before exploding into some cool bouncy keyboards. When Martin Sakutu's vocals kick in, the bass takes over and it falls flat before picking up again and building to the chorus (with some neat additions from co-vocalist Bob Tollast), again peppered with elastic electronica. Two and a half minutes of this idea and it all starts to go wrong - the structure and coherence get lost under some kitchen sink production. Even Sakutu sounds bored and underwhelmed. The music gets back on course with more great guitar work but then what amounts to a simple repeat of the chorus, more weird keyboards and a stuttering close.

International Love Affair is not a great single but it is certainly better than most of the songs on the album, most notably the messy 'Seasick Sailor'. However it is not as interesting as recent garage rock single 'Vuitton Blues'. But Laurel Collective sound cluttered, like everyone is stepping on each others' toes all the time. Consistency is the key on many levels for a band who still have much to prove.
-- CS (for The Music Magazine)

Monday, 8 September 2008

Noel Gallagher Attacked On Stage

It's a crazy world when some deranged idiot can get on stage while an artist is performing. This happened yesterday at an Oasis gig at the Toronto Music Festival, resulting in Noel being pushed back onto some speakers. He went to hospital with a suspected broken rib.

Get well soon Noel and all the best for the rest of the tour.

Live From Abbey Road (Show 11, Series 2 - 05/09/2008)

Another week, another Live From Abbey Road...and after the highs of last week I was expecting a slump but was pleasantly surprised. The line up for this show is veteran Canadian rocker Bryan Adams, Ben Harper (with his Innocent Criminals) and former lead singer of Del Amitri Justin Currie. The only problem is that Currie only performs one song which is very strange.

The set:

Bryan Adams
  • Heaven
  • She's Got A Way
  • Cuts Like A Knife
Ben Harper And The Innocent Criminals
  • Better Way
  • Fool For A Lonesome Train
  • Use Me
Justin Currie
  • Still In Love
I suppose a full band version of Summer Of '69 is out of the question so we are treated to a stripped down set from Mr. Adams. The first two tracks: the magnificent 'Heaven' and a new song 'She's Got A Away' are performed with a violinist. I can't for the life of me work out who she is and it is not explained in the show. Anyway the combination works incredibly well. They seem to be arranging each song as they are about to record which adds a dynamic feel - she is just looking to him for a cue and then plays her part; nothing is pre-written. Adams still has an amazing voice - under the rough sound there is beautiful tone. He goes solo for the classic 'Cuts Like A Knife' which gets a bit wordless. In between there are some insights: Adams talks about his recording studio in Vancouver which was an old supplies building about to be ripped down. He stepped in to recover it and has turned it into a studio. His song writing process is the 'jam and mumble' approach which he demonstrates using 'Run To You'. In the intro he tells us that his touring schedule involves playing ten days a month and the rest of the time he likes to backpack and see places. Yeah ok. A good set.

Ben Harper is not someone I follow but I am aware of his music. He captures anything and everything that is meaningful, keeping it all in small books (he never goes anywhere without a pen and a book to write in). His music is part folk, part blues and soul and influenced by funk and rock. 'Better Way' is a great song but his vocals are an acquired taste. The multitude of instruments and the arrangement is wonderful but it does go a bit mad and ends in a torrent of drums. He pays the Abbey Road studio a great compliment and describes it as an anomaly. Everything you sing and play comes back to you clearly and precisely. He says that a room of its size should not behave this way acoustically. Second song 'Fool For A Lonesome Train' is more conventional country rock/blues. When he starts talking about Beatles covers, my heart sank as I expected a dodgy rework of a classic but instead he announces 'Use Me', a Bill Withers song. Clearly Harper is a huge fan and he does not want to pass on the opportunity. A great funk/soul cover ensues with much better vocals. The end is very funny...there is a short drum solo followed by a blast on the bongos which goes a bit wrong. They can't seem to work out what went wrong but the drummer seems satisfied and declares it 'his take'. Harper tells his bongo guy that whatever his problem is, it is now captured for all time.

Justin Currie gets one song to shine (I still have no idea why his time at Abbey Road was so brief). It sees the former Del Amitri vocalist in Nick Cave mode, at a piano and accompanied by a soft keyboard. 'Still In Love' is actually quite good but feels a bit too arranged which goes against his idealology of not liking stuff that is 'nailed together'. It works though but a couple more tunes would have been nice. It is still unclear if Del Amitri is still an entity. Currie says he doesn't want to create a new band as he still has one - so he won't rule out any options.

So a highly entertaining if slightly predicatble show this week from three accomplished musicians. More please.

Mercury Music Prize 2008

I'm a bit slow with this but it's only just come to my attention that it is Mercury Music time.

The 2008 Albums are:
  • Adele - 19
  • British Sea Power - Do You Like Rock Music?
  • Burial - Untrue
  • Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid
  • Estelle - Shine
  • Laura Marling - Alas I Cannot Swim
  • Neon Neon - Stainless Style
  • Portico Quartet - Knee-Deep in the North Sea
  • Rachel Unthank & The Winterset - The Bairns
  • Radiohead - In Rainbows
  • Robert Plant & Alison Krauss - Raising Sand
  • The Last Shadow Puppets - The Age of the Understatement
As is typical of this award, it is a mix of mainstream bands plus a few honorary extras. I can't comment on Portico Quartet and I haven't heard all of the Rachel Unthank & The Winterset album, Shine by Estelle or Neon Neon's Stainless Style. My money is on Robert Plant & Alison Krauss. I hope Laura Marling doesn't win as it will kill her career (see Gomez) but there is a good outside chance from Elbow, British Sea Power and Adele. But it could easily go to Burial or Radiohead.

Notable absentees are Coldplay (a good thing!), Portishead, Goldfrapp and Duffy which is a real surprise.

If it was down to me, my shortlist (based on my current charts) would be:
  • I Want You To Know That There Is Always Hope - I Was A Cub Scout
  • Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down - Noah And The Whale
  • Seventh Tree - Goldfrapp
  • Third - Portishead
  • We Started Nothing - The Ting Tings
  • The Seldom Seen Kid - Elbow
  • The Age Of The Understatement - The Last Shadow Puppets
  • Silent Cry - Feeder
  • Songs In A&E - Spiritualized
  • In Rainbows - Radiohead
  • Alas, I Cannot Swim - Laura Marling
  • Welcome To Goon Island - XX Teens
I would also consider adding British Sea Power and Seth Lakeman. Folk music is poorly represented but has a tendancy to be a dark horse. Rachel Unthank & The Winterset are getting fantastic reviews but it is not close enough to the mainstream to make an impact.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Mogwai - The Hawk Is Howling Album Review (2008)

I was the given the opportunity to review the new Mogwai album for The Music Magazine - thanks again SG! I am a huge fan which does not help with a balanced objective review but I always try to be fair and reasoned. This is probably the best album of the year so far - a colossal one hour of pure musical masterclass. The band are just getting better and better.

The review:

Modern musicians have been making instrumental music for decades. Ever since the dawn of the digital age songs without vocals have existed from Mike Oldfield and Jean Michel Jarre to Orbital, the purity of music has been put to the forefront. With bands like Pink Floyd and Dire Straits and the concept of the 'guitar solo', music took on a whole new dimension and it seemed acceptable to play with structure and arrangement; to create eight minute songs full of 'atmosphere' and leave wide open spaces free from vocals. So it was inevitable that a band such as Mogwai should exist. They have bridged the gap left by the dance genre bands and picked up guitars again. This is instrumental music made using rock instruments. 'The Hawk Is Howling' is the sixth album from Mogwai and at an hour in length, it is a huge achievement.

The absence of lyrics in the music of Mogwai is what makes it so interesting. One's focus is purely on the sounds and textures generated from musical expression and not by words and voice. Only the title of each song is a guide. Yes, vocals can be an instrument in their own right (see Thor Birgisson from Sigur Rós) but more often than not, the lyrics direct a specific listening path - not the voice itself. You just don't get that with Mogwai. Their creations are more than just background music without a vocalist. Each musician becomes one voice. And the music sings.

'The Hawk Is Howling' opens with the magnificent 'I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead', beginning as simple piano and guitar before the instrumentation fills out two minutes in as a series of dreamy chord changes set to a ghostly backdrop. The drums and cymbals build slowly to a climax; a mood drenched melody of keys, guitars, drums and ultimately a swathe of squealing strings. The chaotic ending, cumulating with a cartoon sound of a television set being switched off at the socket, is meticulously planned. It is what we expect - no demand - from the opening track of a new Mogwai album.

The start of 'Batcat' brings in more noise - guitars first then huge pounding drums. The guitar work, a mesmerising blur of multiple layers, is astonishing. The song threatens to settle down two minutes in but remains a crouching tiger, waiting for prey to pass. A brief interlude of grinding buzzing guitars leads into the powerful last section, taken over by a constant barrage of percussion and seemingly random blasts of aggression, before a sudden halt. 'Danphe And The Brain' is a much more subdued electronic based piece, gliding rather than punching its way through five minutes of subtlety and poise. The mid-section builds briefly then immediately softens to fall away again, plunging into a soft bed of strings and peppery drums. The inevitable build up arrives late, lifting the music to a predictable crescendo underpinned with more squealing guitars.
The sultry guitars of 'Local Authority' generate another achingly beautiful song, undulating and flowing with ambient atmosphere. This is the shortest and most gentle track on the album, taking time on its four minute journey. It leads neatly into 'The Sun Smells Too Loud', a massive swirl of churning drums and guitars centred with a startling hazy summers day riff. At the three minute mark heavy keyboards stomp in and the electronics create a more artificial blend before the guitars return, tribal drums echoing the sound. The second half provides little variation and instead of a rousing climax, the music simply drifts away into waves of static.

'Kings Meadow' could be about many things but is most likely the acknowledgement of the top field at Glastonbury - one of the most spiritual places in the UK. This is represented in a very delicate ethereal piece which shimmers with hidden energy and elegance. The subtlety of piano and rain-like percussion coupled with a simple guitar creates visions of dancing, meditation and a soft shower through sunlight. The perception of simplicity has never been so complex.

Into the last four tracks and half an hour of the album remains. The intriguingly named 'I Love You, I'm Going To Blow Up Your School' is nothing short of astonishing. A song in many parts: the first minute is the most ambient part of the album, composed of fragile bass guitar before the second minute introduces more layers and a piano. The mesmerising arrangement drifts into the fourth minute with more exquisite guitar work (very reminiscent of Tool). Half way through and the atmosphere is becoming cold and menacing, the music building and then falling away again, only to come back stronger in the last two minutes - powerful and threatening - and then exploding in a release of built up tension and bottled up rage. A torrent of grinding guitars scream out in a series of spiralling aftershocks, leaving only buzzing guitars in the crumbling smouldering wreckage. It is a horror movie fuelled love song, lacking political correctness but remains the ultimate expressive metaphor.

The eight minute epic 'Scotland's Shame' opens with a buzzing church organ effect, joined by more wavering electronics and then a heavy menacing drum track. The guitars take over, laying down a melody across the persistent drums while others sing out in falsetto like a string based choir of angels. The song plods onward relentlessly without dragging and descends into a simple arrangement of pounding echoing drums and a last minute which genuinely sounds like distorted vocals amid the fizzing guitars. It ends full circle back with the church organ. 'Thank You Space Expert' has a desperately laboured opening but is rescued by some stunning guitars. This is followed by nearly two minutes of wide open space before vibrating back into life with the most heart wrenching piano - dramatic yet understated, controlled and free. If they ever remake 2001: A Space Odyssey they will use this instead of The Blue Danube.

'The Hawk Is Howling' closes with a finale worthy of the Mogwai name. 'The Precipice' takes a couple of minutes to start building and then a full minute and a half of guitars and drums to metamorphose into something a lot more substantial. This echoes 'We No Here' (the end of 'Mr. Beast') with added melody and purpose; a much more satisfying conclusion to the album and a remarkable hour of music.

Mogwai has deconstructed the enormous ferocity of 'Mr. Beast' and rebuilt it with the delicate stirrings of 'Happy Songs For Happy People' to create a hybrid full of tension, sensitivity and breathtaking beauty. It is an evolved sound safe within acquired boundaries, never straying from the true path but occasionally allowing for brief excursions. If anything the music is so distinctive and so constrained within Mogwai's wonderful world that it becomes a bit too familiar. But there is enough variation and sheer unadulterated supreme musicianship on 'The Hawk Is Howling' that between the new and the old it is always balanced and controlled. When it is this good, they don't need words. Mogwai has always let the music do the talking.

-- CS (for The Music Magazine)