Monday, 31 March 2008

2008 Music Chart - March 2008

Some big hitters this month in the chart as the year starts to get going: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Counting Crows and Nine Inch Nails.
  1. Ghosts I-IV - Nine Inch Nails
  2. I Want You To Know That There Is Always Hope - I Was A Cub Scout
  3. Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
  4. Seventh Tree - Goldfrapp
  5. Alas, I Cannot Swim - Laura Marling
  6. Do You Like Rock Music - British Sea Power
  7. Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings - Counting Crows
  8. Midnight Boom - The Kills
  9. In Rainbows - Radiohead
  10. Neptune - The Duke Spirit
  11. This Gift - Sons & Daughters

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Counting Crows - Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings Album Review (2008)

Counting Crows have never been the hippest band in the world. When their debut August And Everything After was released in the early nineties, everyone was still listening to Nirvana or enveloped in Britpop. Listening to a sensitive US indie rock band, back when it simply wasn’t cool, was never a popular choice. But back before emo took over punk and bands got younger, Adam Duritz was churning out the type of emotional Americana most of us can only dream about. Mix in some great songs, delicious piano and excellent crafting and it is a winning formula. Or it was. Since the wonderful debut, Counting Crows have only come close a few times: most of Recovering The Satellites, some of Hard Candy and This Desert Life. In between, a few live albums remind us of how great an event a Crows gig can be, but the single version of Big Yellow Taxi does little to win many new fans. Then bring out a ‘Best Of’ and re-release the debut - not a smart move as this often signals not only a lack of new ideas but the end of the road. So, fifteen or so years later, Counting Crows return with a new album curiously titled Saturday Nights And Sunday Mornings.

The album opens with 1492, and one of the least Crows sounding songs. Duritz immediately starts a garbled rant before setting the tone of the album against a Columbus metaphor. It is fairly unstructured stuff but messy and in-your-face rock, something the band do not usually do well. When Duritz comes in with his ‘history’ lesson, there are echoes of Nick Cave, reeling off modern day anecdotes within a fable-like context, his voice less controlled and more frantic, vibrant and alive. He is genuinely venomous when talking about ‘these people who impersonate our friends’.

Hanging Tree is also a little rough around the edges but a glorious no-nonsense pop song. A great guitar lick sets things up for the rest of the band, underpinned by piano. Duritz declares ‘I am a child of fire, I am a lion, I have desires and I was born inside the Sun this morning…’, before probably the best chorus on the album. Despite the ever present desperation in the vocals, it sounds like a band having fun. Similarly Los Angeles is the same, this time a mid-tempo bluesy rock piece full of an orchestra of guitars and piano. ’So if you see that movie star and me. If you should see my picture in a magazine…’ sings Duritz, a man born of frustration, searching for a soul in the city. Again his vocals are magnificently wayward. The final minute settles down like a drunken night out before he finally concludes that LA is a great place for a taco. Sublime…

Sundays is a great song suffering from two things: hopelessly simple lyrics and a noticeable contrast between the verses, which are fantastic, and choruses that are flat - the harmonies are good though. Again it’s a melting pot of instrumentation with plenty of time for guitar break. ’Give me a reason or I might stop breathing. Give me a reason why I’m soaking wet. Gonna stop breathing coz the sky is falling. I might go out and watch the moon explode. Give me direction to the highway crossing; I’ll go lie down in the middle of the road’ is a rare moment of Mark Everett genius, all bittersweet delivery. As Duritz declares triumphantly ’I don’t believe in anything’, he has never sounded so good.

Insignificant is just that (without wanting to be herded together with all those who have made the same clichéd comparison), mainly because it sounds like it’s too easy. It owes much of the great guitar melody to Far by Longpigs, probably the only standout ingredient in the characterless soup. Cowboys on the other hand is a perfect example of why Counting Crows are where they are. Despite the slightly unimaginative chorus, the song is a standout showcase of pure musical talent with more ideas in one song than in most new albums these days. Duritz is controlled and measured, back to his energetic and spine tingling best. The last minute goes completely off the rails which is more a surprise than a disappointment as the climactic ending leaves you wanting more.

The big ballad of the album is Washington Square and marks the point where the album changes slightly. The arrangement appears simple but a complex network of guitars creates the foundations for more subtle piano, over which Duritz delivers another great vocal and Springsteen-esque harmonica break. From here, On Almost Any Sunday Morning sounds like an off-cut from the previous track, like the band indulged in a jam session afterwards. Duritz attempts to make his voice do something different - sustained notes are never his strong point - which is admirable but misjudged. The song serves as breathing space and nothing more.
When I Dream Of Michelangelo continues the delicate approach. Duritz is typically inwardly reflective: ‘I can’t see why you want to talk to me, when your vision of America is crystalline and clean’. It is safe, inoffensive and utterly brilliant.

Anyone But You is another unfortunate lull and a song which in its five minute odyssey never really gets going. Again Duritz’s attempts at harmonic melody almost works but feels uncomfortable and awkward particularly at the end when it all goes a bit Beach Boys with horrible effect. One that maybe should have hit the editing room floor, given the quantity and quality of what else is on offer. It’s all as frustrating as Mr. Duritz sounds when You Can’t Count On Me brings the album back in style - a near perfectly crafted mid-temp rock anthem with a great lyrical construct. And then comes the really big surprise. Instead of more of the same, and a set of predictable formulaic Counting Crows ‘play it safe’ moments, Ballet d‘Or happens. For five minutes, the band are possessed by the spirit of Led Zeppelin in their more controlled psychedelic phases. For a band who are all too often criticised for being too safe, this is an experiment that works. The song is a dark brooding, yet un threatening, fragment of building vocals. Extended to seven minutes with an added guitar break ending, it would make a great album closer.

On a Tuesday In Amsterdam Long Ago has Duritz returning to more reflective mood. Not that the band is easy to read but this is the big piano number and with the vocals the two create a brilliant song unfettered by constraining structure or direction. In complete contrast Come Around is polished rock formula akin to You Can’t Count On Me and previously Murder Of One. Returning to a point of safety is probably a wise move. In the mid section the backing vocals are outstanding. At the end, they form a second vocal - another album highlight.

The album closes with the mammoth Sunday Morning L.A. which has Duritz pushing his vocals again. This creates a strange beguiling effect as the band return to psychedelic rock blues for a rousing conclusion. As the vocals build, Duritz sings ‘I have just realised that it’s all fun. Get off on life, endure this sun’, continuing the theme of west coast American life. ‘We never get away…these stupid sinners; the angels all have guns…‘. It doesn’t all work but it shows an interesting direction. The last minute and a half gets southern rock - Duritz hollering like Jimmy Page over squealing guitars. Almost the closer Ballet d‘Or could have been.

Saturday Nights And Sunday Mornings constantly reminds you how great Counting Crows are. It does, however, fall too easily onto the safe ground with songs that are barely there, existing only as Duritz’s vocals without flow or melody. All too often in the past, Duritz is doing his own thing, drowning out the other six members of the band. Thankfully this is less evident here with plenty of ideas, lots of instrumentation and some great up-tempo songs sounding live and earthy rather than sculpted and edited. And the slower songs typically sound as good as ever. At an hour, the album is overlong with a few lulls along the way but you can’t criticise too much material - there is a great 50 minute, 12 song album in their somewhere. Counting Crows may not be the coolest band, or the most direct, but the music is still relevant and Adam Duritz still has plenty to be angst-ridden and frustrated about. Long may he and his band continue to share it with us.
-- CS

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Death Cab For Cutie

Ben Gibbard from Death Cab For Cutie performed a Hub session for BBC 6music on the George Lamb show. He previewed new song 'Cath...' from the forthcoming new album Narrow Stairs. After some banter with Lamb, stating that new bands shouldn't make albums unless they have some songs to put in it, and discussing whether one microphone or five is good for recording, he said that the new album is a lot more 'live full rock' than Plans. Ben sounded good but the whole band would have been better!

R.E.M. Live At The Royal Albert Hall

With the new album Accelerate almost released, R.E.M. play at The Royal Albert Hall to preview the 35 minutes of new material. Yes, 35 minutes.

The set list (from Murmers.com):

Main

Living Well Is The Best Revenge*
Accelerate*
Drive
Man-Sized Wreath*
Electrolite
Houston*
Hollow Man*
Supernatural Superserious*
Final Straw
Losing My Religion
The Great Beyond
I'm Gonna DJ*
Horse To Water*

Encore

Imitation Of Life
Until The Day Is Done*
Man On The Moon

*from Accelerate

The gig was broadcast live on BBC Radio 2 - well the main set list anyway, with encores, to follow during the day after. With a set limited to promoting the new album, it was a wonderful shambles. The new songs are short and spiky and delivered with energy and determination, even if Stipe’s voice is slightly shaky. Peter Buck plays his guitar constantly and the band have regressed back to the garage band days for Accelerate. With great backing vocals from Mills, it takes you back pre-Green to Life’s Rich Pageant.

In between all this new energy laid waste to the mid-tempo hopelessness of Around The Sun, R.E.M. still have time for live favourites such as Drive (the original version and not the funky ’live’), Electrolite, a near perfect Losing My Religion and The Great Beyond. It is so evident in current times to hear musicians preaching about the state of the world, but Americans have a lot to shout about. And R.E.M. have never shied away from politics and a great performance of Final Straw was delivered with dark foreboding, like new song Houston and Until The Day Is Done. It’s what Stipe does best - within all the new Monster-esque sexy rock, it is always the serious stuff that is relevant and pointed.

I can’t comment on the encores but the main set was predictable, safe and short. It would be naïve to expect anything more from such an orchestrated showcase at one of the worlds most prestigious live venues. Stipe announced that given the heritage and aesthetic of the venue he wanted an entirely acoustic set. I’m glad they didn’t as the new songs work live. The two missing from Accelerate, Mr. Richards and Sing For The Submarine, were out for a reason but you can’t help thinking that given the event, it wouldn’t have hurt to play the whole album plus a few more of the older songs, giving a longer set. It was described as a ‘Radio 2’ set played for a ‘Radio 2’ audience. Probably right.

So, R.E.M. are back with a solid yet expected event and a very short punchy album. From what I have heard of Accelerate so far, it is tightly edited with only a few down turns as the album sags at the end, lifts and then concludes with a high. The live sound is now great and the band, Stipe and Buck in particular sound invigorated. Given that the UK is not an entirely happy place for R.E.M. and the last time the band tried to ‘rock’, it resulted in Monster, the worst album they have made, and a tour that ended with the near death of former drummer Bill Berry, maybe now they can put some of the ghosts to rest.

Friday, 21 March 2008

R.E.M. Living Well Is The Best Revenge (Version) YouTube Video

This is not a great version of the song but a brilliant home movie video of the band performing in a moving car. They look like they are having fun at long last...

The video is also free on iTunes.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Nine Inch Nails Ghosts Film Festival on YouTube





Nine Inch Nails invites you (yes you!) to submit videos for songs from their new album Ghosts I-IV. The basic idea is to allow members of the public to create visuals for some, if not all, of the 36 instrumental tracks and put them on YouTube. All the info is here.

Monday, 17 March 2008

The Kills - Midnight Boom Album Review (2008)

Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince have always given us style and substance in equal measure. Having a ‘look’ as well as a ‘sound’ is important for a band who like to stay up late and wear their sunglasses indoors. But there is more to this duo than the cool exterior they exude. From their startling debut Keep On The Mean Side in 2003 to their previous album and critically lauded No Wow, The Kills has produced the sort of bluesy garage-rock inviting comparisons with their US counterparts The White Stripes. This is even more surprising as Jamie Hince hails from Newbury in the UK. So with this unique fusion of Florida born punk goddess Mosshart and enigmatic guitarist Hince that The Kills give us Midnight Boom.

The album opens with the two recent singles and most distinctive tracks. U.R.A Fever starts with a phone dialling before the vocal duelling begins, handclaps, scratching, distorted bass percussion and machine-gun guitar riffs following. The phone samples continue to add a distraction but it’s the contrast in vocals between Mosshart and Hince which are the most striking. At a little over 2 minutes it’s way too short. Cheap And Cheerful also opens in similar unceremonious style with Mosshart coughing over the drum machine. “I’m bored of cheap and cheerful”, she declares. ‘I want expensive sadness. Hospital bills, parole; open doors to madness. I want you to be crazy coz you’re boring baby when you’re straight. I want you to be crazy coz you’re stupid baby when you’re safe‘. It is the ubiquitous song about the perils of fame and fortune in the hedonistic and self-indulgent noughties. After a brief and slightly odd bout of military drums, Mosshart tries to convince herself that ’It’s alright, to be me’ - it’s a shame that unlike the ‘live’ version, Hince doesn’t provide the backing vocals, the band instead opting to tightly edit the single voice.

The album settles down into the mid-tempo guitar driven Tape Song. Mosshart sounds suitably bored: ‘time ain’t gonna cure you honey, time don’t give a shit’. It’s not going to win any song writing awards but it is effective. Hince provides the robotic guitars. It’s only in the last minute that the band really comes to life, pushing the vocals and deepening the sound, like an early P J Harvey demo. Getting Down is a lot more funky, again with great vocals - even when the duo run out of things to say and just warble. The lyrics are typically punk: ‘I’m getting down with your new vocation. I’m getting down with your cute cut wrist’.

Last Day Of Magic is probably the first sign that The Kills can make a complete three minute pop song if they put in the effort. If there is one thing the band suffers from it’s the perception that the duo lose interest and quickly move on the next new idea. It means things are not overproduced and stay fresh, but also the songs tend to be short and punchy. This a happy medium finding common ground between the two approaches. Mosshart in particular sounds energised and enthused.

Hook And Line is another fragment of a song but with genuine charm - garage meets sixth form poetry. The chorus explodes in a swathe of guitar and vocals. The cheesy handclaps starting Black Balloon do nothing to add some credibility and slightly ruin some great vocals from Moss hart - strong and tuneful. It all feels a bit post-grunge US west coast. Then the song gets a psychedelic string injection. In the closing minute, Hince adds some wonderful simple guitar melody. The song is a real surprise. In contrast the one minute forty seconds of M.E.X.I.C.O.C.U is vibrant and messy even when the vocals come in.

Sour Cherry is another great example of the three minute pop song in the same vein as Getting Down but with more substance. Alphabet Pony is annoying, not just the dull chorus but also the predictable guitar riff. What New York Used To Be has a slightly uneasy start, the buzz guitar failing to find a rhythm. The song also never seems to get a hold - an empty sentiment that just gets repetitive.

The album closer Goodnight Bad Morning is another surprise - acoustic guitar and piano, just a smattering of guitars and Mosshart playing Patti Smith. Hince adds some great backing vocals but the song just drifts along to bring things to a very downbeat end.

Midnight Boom isn’t a huge leap forward for The Kills. At times it is the sound of a band perfecting their art, within their own boundaries augmented by producer Alex Epton. Like the aforementioned Stripes, the band does a lot with just two voices and a guitar, against the backdrop of programmed drum machines. Mosshart’s voice is amazing when she allows it to be, as are the guitar pieces added by Hince. But the tendency for the quality of songs to create obvious highs and lows ,and the stark artificial percussion holding it all together, sometimes gets tiresome and predictable. That said, the overall sound of Midnight Boom is full of energy and charm that ebbs and flows throughout the album. The Kills might be too much style of substance, but they are still exciting and relevant. And just a little bit predictable.

-- CS

I Was A Cub Scout @ SXSW - Pink Squares YouTube Video



From the BBC SXSW Blog.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Nine Inch Nails - Ghosts I-IV Review

Nine Inch Nails, AKA Trent Reznor, has always been unconventional. In 1991 he released Pretty Hate Machine and in a time when the world was embracing Brit-pop and Grunge, Nine Inch Nails were obsessed with mid-80s synth-pop with an industrial edge. The Broken and Fixed EPs reinforced this new sound and three years after the debut, Reznor made The Downward Spiral. In spite of huge critical distaste for the album it remains one of the best examples of the genre and one man’s struggle against the corporate music industry. So this constant rebellion against authority and ’the organisation of free-will’ is not only present in the music but is deep within his soul.

Reznor is portrayed in the media as a pioneer of industrial rock and creator of albums filled with the sound of grinding machinery, electronic feedback and heavy guitars. But it is the ever present instrumental compositions throughout Nine Inch Nail’s work that is intriguing. From Help Me I Am In Hell to the delicate ambience of A Warm Place to the chaotic stomp of Complication to the rebel rousing apocalyptic feedback of Hyperpower, Reznor always returned to the instrumental as a source of safety and solace. So out of nowhere, but hinted at due to the recent internet experiment with Saul Williams, Nine Inch Nails release Ghosts I-IV, a huge 36 song instrumental set available on the internet for $5 with Ghosts I downloadable as a ‘free’ preview. It is what die hard fans have been waiting for…

Ghosts I begins tentatively. Tracks 1-I and 2-I are delicate piano pieces. Only 3-I and 5-I start to sound like minimalist Nine Inch Nails with 4-I going from acoustic to industrial noise. 6-I is something of a surprise, a full four minutes of creepy piano with no discernable breaks. 7-I shows the first signs of something special: two minutes of trademark robotic beats. 8-I is slower but equally striking with layered feedback and a high point with just a few similarities to Visage’s Fade To Grey. 9-I ends the first volume as it started with delicate piano, this time with layered strings and spiky percussion.

Ghosts II is much more audacious as if volume I was a mere warm-up. 10-II is spooky, uneasy and ambient with everything soaked in fuzzy static. 11-II loses the static and is much more minimalist but takes the same approach. Both 12-II and 13-II could have been lifted from the Road To Perdition soundtrack, if the film had been made in the year 3000, and is another highlight. As is 14-II, like 7-I only more direct and controlled. It is one of those tracks that you expect Reznor’s voice to wash over at any point. But of course it never does. The paradoxical child-like samples and juxtaposition screaming and creepy nightmarish atmosphere on 15-II make it a very uneasy listen. 16-II comes back with more electronic beats and driving bass and some rare pseudo-vocal samples. Unfortunately is loses its way and gets messy. 17-II is like a shorter reworking of 6-I with full instrumentation and a different melody. 18-II continues the vibrant electronic theme and ends Ghosts II with a light plodding rhythm, multiple bass lines and a spooky string arrangement. Again like Ghosts I it travels full circle.

Ghosts III kicks off with 19-III, sparsely drum lead and sounding like a futurist computerised stream engine. It’s the sort of thing that infuriates parents the world over. 20-III isn’t much better with a tuneless mess of buzzing feedback. The track picks up in the last minute, building up furiously to a simple piano and a backing that sounds like wasps stuck in a drainpipe. 21-III is more of 1-6, upbeat with a constant swirling backing track. 22-III is playful piano improvisation and drums. 23-III is a continuous buzzsaw of guitars drowning out any tune or melody whereas 24-III is the definitive highlight on Ghosts III sounding produced and polished. It is one of the high points of the whole 26 song collection. Again, rare vocal samples are used against a driving guitar rhythm which builds and slows in equal measure. This is exactly why Nine Inch Nails should be doing this. Annoyingly 25-III loses all this momentum and is empty space, probably the most vacuous piece. 26-III attempt to lift the mood again, drums pounding as guitar and piano fight for a tune. It builds then slows for a disappointing ending. 27-III brings Ghosts III is a strong close, given the bad start. It sounds like an instrumental version of another song from the archives, all twisted metal and crashing percussion.

Ghosts IV starts with one of the longest tracks 28-IV, a slow melodic piece which rises and falls around a stark banjo-esque guitar riff and harpsichord. The duelling guitar ending is controlled and precise. It is not what you expect from an ‘industrial-metal’ band. 29-IV is also very good, with a great Chemical Brothers bounce with all the Nine Inch Nails sound still there. 30-IV is three minutes of sparse tribal drums and slowed down vocal samples leading into the heavy menacing 31-IV, like 23-III with aggression and a tune. Again another wondrous high point with a magnificent speeded up guitar solo. 32-IV couldn’t be more different, another slow melodic plod. It threatens to build at the end but never really does. 33-IV has a similar approach, the squealing guitars and static pumping out a melody between the empty spaces. 34-IV brings back the piano and the banjo from 28-IV. At nearly 6 minutes this is the longest and most complete piece of music on all four volumes. The fantastic deep resonating piano leads into strings and moaning ambience. The track never comes back with such defiance instead choosing to drift away slowly. 35-IV continues the strong finish, a howling guitar riff lifting an otherwise ordinary piece of fuzzy electronica. Ghosts IV ends at Ghosts I started with 36-IV, a simple piano piece.
To treat each track on Ghosts I-IV separately would be a disservice as the whole 36 track collection plays out like a continuous soundtrack. Also trying to assess each volume in terms of sound and style is also a problem as themes entwine and are revisited constantly across the whole set. The soundtrack ebbs and flows - Ghosts I is a good introduction, the start of Ghosts II is strong and wonderful unlike Ghosts III which is messy, inconsistent and unhinged. Ghosts IV ends on a high and is the most consistent of the volumes, providing some of the most complete ‘songs‘.

In recent years Nine Inch Nails has enjoyed a huge return to form, not that the band lost it in the first place, but The Fragile was such a sprawling mess of an album that many people didn’t know what to make of it. With Teeth and Year Zero are the best albums since The Downward Spiral and after flirting yet again with remixes and video (see Y34RZ3r0r3mix3d) after breaking free from Interscope, the world is at Mr. Reznor’s feet. There will be more volumes of Ghosts which can only be a good thing but let’s hope we get this and ‘full Nine Inch Nails’ in equal measure. Ghosts is too good to be a side project.
-- CS

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Download The Charlatans' New Album For Free!

Ok this one took me by surprise...I heard a while ago that the mighty Charlatans were working on new material but I didn't know they were going to do a 'Radiohead'. I haven't listened to the album yet so watch this space for a full review soon.

Below is a link to the xfm website with a news article and download link for the album.

Download The Charlatans' New Album For Free!

Friday, 7 March 2008

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! Review

It has been four years since Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds made the magnificent double album Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus to quickly follow up the ultimate disappointment of the Nocturama album. After No More Shall We Part, a collection of beautifully crafted and performed songs showcasing Cave’s sensitive and passionate side, the enigmatic singer and his ever versatile band attempted to get back to their roots with mixed results. A couple of sparse and low key soundtracks and the questionable Grinderman project make you wonder what a new Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds would sound like. From a man who always sounds distinctive but also changes things frequently, and after hearing the in-your-face stomp of the title track and first single, Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! could be a complete mess of sounds and ideas fuelled by too many changes to the formula. Far from it.

The album opens with the title track; always a bad idea but Cave always starts with a punch. The song differs from the single version and includes extra lines in the verses to fill some awkward empty spaces. It works much better. Starting with the chorus (again Cave is never conventional) and launching into the story of what would have happened if Lazarus (affectionately Larry) had been given a new life only to abuse it and run dramatically off the rails. The interplay between guitar and trademark organ is incredible and adds a perfect uneasy backing.

Today’s Lesson continues with similar controlled attitude, Cave obviously enjoying himself while the Seeds pump out a wealth of musical expertise. The song recounts some of Cave’s favourite themes: sex and religion. There is real energy in his voice, as if he means every word: ‘Down the back of Janie’s jeans she had the jawbone of an ass. Mr. Sandman he runs around the corner trying to head her off at the pass…’. As Cave takes a breath, things slow done in the middle to give some much needed breathing space. If anything the second half gets more frantic. At three minutes any normal song would finish but the story isn’t finished yet. A brief tuneless organ solo and Cave is back for a rousing finish.

Moonland starts with the line: ‘When I came up out of the meat locker, the city was gone’. Nothing like grabbing people’s attention. Cave is in post-apocalyptic mood, slow this time and with menacing purpose. It sounds like vintage Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds with a new edge - a snarling blues funk driving the venomous vocals. ‘It must be nice to leave no trace…but somebody needs you and that somebody is me, babe…’. This is the way to make a love song. Perversely it seems to fade early before the story is told.

Night Of The Lotus Eaters is even more sparse and creepy. Again the Seeds provide an amazing atmospheric soundtrack as Cave croons like a madman. A great example of the man’s poetry and musings set to music. In contrast Albert Goes West is a complete up tempo pop song, complete with cheesy backing vocals. It sounds a big too formulaic and most of the lyrics are weak and obvious, in the end resorting to meaningless sha-la-las instead of saying nothing and letting the music finish up.

An album highlight in many ways is We Call Upon The Author. Another example of excellent song writing within a perfect shape. Cave gives himself room to ramble incessantly almost without breath or respite: ‘There is a predatory conspiracy against the likes of you and me in this idiot constituency of the moon. Well he knew exactly who to blame…’. The song is peppered with strange industrial interludes which do little to ease the uneasy mood of the zealot-preacher rant. As the song unfolds, it’s clear that irony is taking hold. Cave throws the world’s problems at us in kitchen sink style: ’Rampant discrimination, mass poverty, third world debt, infectious disease, global inequality and deepening socio-economic divisions…’. Why make an album about the world’s problems when you can sum it up in one line? At least in shows that Cave is not that out of touch with reality even if has no answers. He is not afraid to tackle controversial subjects either, declaring that his friend Doug has a book of holocaust poetry (complete with pictures). After another interlude, we discover that the answer to all this is ‘a pair of scissors’. Sheer Brilliance.

Hold On To Yourself is the big sprawling ballad, lifted from the No More Shall We Part days without the piano instead replaced by guitar and organ. It’s becoming a running theme to fill the backing with a more complete arrangement and not just rely upon one sound. There is a persistent background noise underpinning the whole song that is unnerving. The result is outstandingly effective. Cave’s vocals are haunting and tearful: ‘Ah babe I’m a thousand miles away, and I just don’t know what to say coz Jesus only loves a man who bruises. But darling we can clearly see, it’s a life of fire an lunacy and excuses and excuses and excuses…’.

Lie Down Here (And Be My Girl) continues the high standard. It’s like Albert Goes West only this time it works - the backing vocals adding much more and the wonderful Cave piano shining through. Jesus And The Moon is the album’s ‘other’ slow song with Cave musing about love and longing. The pan pipes are a nice touch. Midnight Man approaches the same subject from a different angle, faster with the Seeds in tremendous form again. Cave is very Dylan-esque: ‘It’s early in the morning and I don’t know what to do. It’s early in the morning and I can’t believe it’s true. It’s early in the morning and it’s happening again. Well, I called you once, I called you twice, Ain’t I your midnight man?’. It’s a shame that such a strong vocal performance it compromised by weak lyrics. The end of the song breaks the mould and throws in Grinderman squealing feedback…

Probably the most surprising song on the album is the eight minute long More News From Nowhere. In the same way that Nocturama finished in such impressive style with a huge epic, Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! chooses a subtly different approach. The effect, however, is the same - a massive song full of ideas both lyrically and musically. Instead of full-on rock blues, the sound is slow and dreamy as Cave recalls a psychedelic experience: ’I turn another corner, I go down a corridor and I see this guy; he must be about a hundred foot tall and he only has one eye. He asks me for my autograph; I write nobody and then I wrap myself up in my woolly coat and blind him with my pen. Coz someone must have stuck something in my drink - everything getting strange looking; half the people have turned into squealing pigs, the other half are cooking…’. Again it’s mad and utterly brilliant as Cave goes on to say ’It’s strange in here. And It gets stranger every year’. Given all that’s come before, this is a real gem.

Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! is another great Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album. Luckily the Grinderman project has not had a destructive effect, instead inspiring everyone involved. The title track used as a single to promote the album is strangely deceptive and does little to sum up the rest of the album.

For the first time in a very long time Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds sound like a complete entity, without diminishing the role of Cave as preacher, poet and statesmen. He is sounding stronger and more determined than ever. It is a fusion of ideas from the last three albums with renewed cohesion. Not to say that Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus was not the sound of a band at work. That album is much more sculpted, each song pieced together meticulously. Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! feels much more flowing and spontaneous. The use of female backing vocals to contrast Cave’s baritone used on Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus is sorely missing. A compliment in a way, as you can always have too much of a good thing and why repeat ideas?

At 50, Nick Cave is striving onward unabated, writing songs as reflective, as funny, and as great as ever. Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! feels like an anthology record, pulling in styles and sounds from the past and still making a modern sounding record. All this while not taking itself too seriously. With Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds in this sort of mood, they are unbeatable.
-- CS

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Nine Inch Nails Ghosts update

When I found out NIN released a new album on the web and there was no build-up or hype so most of us were taken by surprise, I dove onto the website as quickly as I could. Problem was that there are a few 'technical' difficulties. I paid my $5 and the link I was sent downloaded an empty zip file. Not a great start. So I sent the website support an email and tried to get the 'free' preview - which is the whole of Ghosts I. Nope. Didn't work either.

Today I finally got sent a link to Ghosts I that works. Basically I don't care if there are problems downloading if Trent (and friends) are giving the first volume away for free. There are bound to be a few niggles and I hope to get the rest of Ghosts very very soon. I better coz Ghosts I is amazing. I have always said that TR is a very good composer. For me, the instrumentals on his albums have always been interesting from A Warm Place to Complication to Hyperpower - they are all great.

Anyone expecting a huge swathe of grinding guitars and hardcore will be disappointed. So far it is subtle, controlled and mature - occasionally ambient and often melodic. It’s not just hours of industrial machinery noises and empty spaces. I will review the entire album when I get it but for now here is a quick summary of Ghosts I…

Track 1 is a piano led dirge.
Track 2 is much of the same with a stronger background buzz.
Track 3 is dark driving beats, samples and guitars.
Track 4 is more whiney guitars and grinding metal.
Track 5 is Twin Peaks at the wrong speed.
Track 6 is delicate plinky-plonky keyboards and cold war strings.
Track 7 is hard drums, sharp edges and guitars.
Track 8 is the same, slowed down with scary feedback.
Track 9 is back to piano and strings.

More to follow…

Goldfrapp - Seventh Tree Review (2008)

Occasionally a band will be accused of reinventing itself. Goldfrapp’s rise to prominence came in 2003 with the acclaimed album Black Cherry, bringing a kind of new wave dance/electronca into the world of indie rock. The band followed this success with Supernature in 2005 opting for a more sassy in-your-face approach but in spite of initial success the songs were for the most part empty and soulless. The remix release We Are Glitter did little to alleviate this vacuous sound bit did give us a glimpse of the future. The future that is Seventh Tree. It’s not so much a reinvention as a reworking of an original idea. And the second time around, they have got it right…

The delicate opening of Clowns immediately tells you what to expect from Seventh Tree. Alison’s vocals are dreamy yet strong, lapsing into empty lyrics and becoming another instrument. It certainly deserves the new ‘folk’ tag but only in approach - as it is all samples (neither of the duo can play guitar). With a minute to go they throw birdsong into the mix and things glide away and become soaked in summer strings.

Little Bird has all the beginnings of a nursery rhyme with AG sounding strangely robotic while musing over distant lands and weird creatures: ‘The shiny blackest crow flew in to say hello, though much to her surprise he had two mouths for eyes’. The chorus is a simple ‘July’ in three extended segments and pierces the slow jilting guitar melody like a ray of sun coming through dark clouds. The song threatens to get too upbeat when Beatles-eque psychedelia arrives but then the whole arrangement lifts with AG’s wonderful vocals drowning out her own chorus. It’s an early highlight and astonishing.

Happiness echoes back to previous Goldfrapp sound, again washed with a dreamy floating arrangement. It’s a solid uplifting song. ‘Join our group and you will find harmony and peace of mind. Make you better. We're here to welcome you’ makes you think they have been watching too much Wicker Man and listening to 1960’s self help tapes in a commune. But the modern warning of being coerced into a cult is all too evident. ‘How do you get to find love? Real love?’ sums up the premise at the song fades.

After such a strong start, Road To Somewhere initially sounds like a loss of momentum. It’s stuck in a mid-tempo world which always teases to get going but never does. But lyrically the song is wonderful - probably the most complete and pleasing on the album. Eat Yourself sounds like several very old recording all pieced together. AG’s vocals are horrible and incoherent but the whole effect is compelling especially when the light melody kicks in. Thankfully the song takes some shape even if the subject is hard to follow. The last minute is filled with small ideas and lots of different instrumentation lovingly crafted together.

Some People is not one of the best songs on the album and from the opening it sounds like a cover of the Cliff Richard classic (thankfully not). What it does do is attempt to explain the current mood and so called ’change of direction’. AG immediately reacts to media intrusion: ’Some people kill for less. Some people find it hard to get dressed. Some people will ask how old I am’ highlights how far people will go for the smallest piece of information. The line ‘When the glitter's gone‘ is great moment as it is AG saying that underneath all the pomp and attitude Goldfrapp is two human beings. And the chorus: ‘You know it. You owe it to yourself. You won't let it make you mad. It's already crazy’ sums it up. The song is deep and reflective.

From here, the album slides into the glorious ambiguity of A&E. It defines the musical high point of Seventh Tree, a wonderfully crafted 3 minute pop song about an ill fated night out or a self induced night in. ’I'm in a backless dress on a pastel ward that's shining. Think I want you still. But there may be pills at work’. You decide. The arrangement and vocals on the chorus: ‘was feeling lonely, feeling blue. Feeling like I needed you. Like I'm walking up surrounded by me. A&E’ is strong and effective. This is a contender for song of the year.

The high standard is maintained into the superbly freaky strings of Cologne Cerrone Houdini. This could definitely have been lifted again from the Wicker Man and comes complete with reversed lyrics ending. It could be prog-folk in another life. What it is about is anyone’s guess.

The penultimate song Caravan Girl is also a revelation, another beautifully formed pop song and the only really fast piece on the album. A great catchy chorus is framed with energy and radiance - like St. Etienne at their best. The band has shrugged off the over-the-top camp nonsense of the past. A great choral vocal mix brings in the last minute which should by rights dive into a three minute Chemical Brothers style outro to the song and the album. What actually happens is a bit of a missed opportunity as the finale Monster Love makes for a downbeat end. It’s a good enough song but to many influences cloud the outcome. As pleasant and inoffensive as it is, nothing happens. ‘Everything comes around, bringing us back again. Here is where we start and where we end…’ sings AG as the album fades away. Subtle but ultimately disappointing.

As always a band moving with the times will create a great deal of hype and criticism. Seventh Tree is not a complete change from the original Goldfrapp sound, now devoid of soul and attitude. The band have delivered slow melodic pieces before, soaked in psychedelic overtones so an entire album based on such an approach is expected and genuine. It worked for Radiohead - up to a point. Making music is about taking in old ideas and crafting them into something new. And music is about taking risks and changing direction, not to everyone’s taste and expectation. Seventh Tree is not brilliant but it is quite often breathtaking, always interesting and very much the right direction.
-- CS

Monday, 3 March 2008

LATER...with Jools Holland (29/02/08 - Show 5)

An interesting a varied show this week, noted for the self-indulgence from Jools who can't resist getting in a 'big band' and playing along with some of the guests. The set list is:
  • Supergrass - Diamond Hoo Har Man
  • Vampire Weekend - Mansard Roof
  • The Big Chris Barber Band - Jubilee Stomp
  • Dianne Reeves (Chat with JH and Just My Imagination with JH)
  • The Kills - U.R.A. Fever
  • Devon Sproule - Old Virginia Block
  • The Big Chris Barber Band and Andy Fairweather-Low (with JH) - Gin House
  • Supergrass - Bad Blood
  • Dianne Reeves (with Andy Fairweather-Low and JH) - Today Will Be A Good Day
  • Vampire Weekend - Oxford Comma
  • Chris Barber (Chat with JH)
  • The Kills - Cheap And Cheerful
  • The Big Chris Barber Band - Petite Fleur
  • Deven Sproule - Stop By Anytime
  • Vampire Weekend - A Punk
  • Supergrass - Rebel In You

It’s hard to know where to start this week. The show proved that JH still has considerable influence over the choice of guests and after a few weeks in the sidelines could no longer just sit and watch. The showcase was not a new vibrant young act or a ‘big name’ pop artist but instead big band supremo Chris Barber with a whole host of musicians. After the predictable Jubilee Stomp, one of the highlights was Gin House with guitarist and singer Andy Fairweather-Low with Jools at the piano adding his trademark tinkles. The band ended the trilogy with Petite Fleur, a more subtle French/Spanish influenced piece.

The other special guest was soul singer Dianne Reeves and after a brief chat with JH and then a slightly ropey rendition of Just My Imagination, the highlight came in the form of Today Will Be A Good Day, again with Jools and Fairweather-Low and some of the Chris Barber band providing the backing. The mix of blues and gospel was the pinnacle of the otherwise ordinary show.

The ever reliable Supergrass churned out three songs, opening the show with Diamond Hoo Har Man (previously released under the guise of The Diamond Hoo Har Men while one of the band recovered from illness), then a good version of Bad Blood, and closing with Rebel In You. They proved what a great live band they are.

Vampire Weekend, the third of the three song acts were awkward and strange as they started with Mansard Roof, then the annoying Oxford Comma and ended with the best and recent single A-Punk. They are accomplished musicians who create complex, if short, songs.

But the real stars of the show, along side the big band, were The Kills and Devon Sproule. As a duo, The Kills are incredible and there is obvious chemistry between them. They gave us U.R.A. Fever and Cheap And Cheerful, with amazing vocals and guitar. Devon Sproule with her husband Paul were equally impressive. She performed Old Virginia Block and Stop By Anytime. Her vocals are similar to Laura Veirs, strong but vulnerable, and she sings mainly with her eyes closed.

So a mixed guest list with rock, soul, country, alternative, a big band and some famous JH piano boogie. Almost a perfect show.

Nine Inch Nails release new album on the web

At last Trent Reznor has released an instrumental album - Ghosts I-IV, available on the net for $5 for the download version, $10 for a 2 CD physical release and $300 for a signed limited edition set. There is also a cheaper (ahem) $75 version. Only the download version is available now.

I'm the biggest NIN fan I know and as tempting as the 'limited edition' package is, I can't help feeling that people are messing with the music distribution tranditions a bit too much. Reznor tried a Radiohead-esque experiment with Saul Williams which didn't get expected results but I would pay more for a new NIN album. So why put the whole thing online for practically nothing and then offer outrageously priced special physical releases? Is this the future...I hope not.

Extended Play Music News by Todd Martens - The Envelope - LA Times