Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Laura Marling - I Speak Because I Can (Album Review 2010)

Since leaving Noah and the Whale in 2008, Laura Marling has never looked back. It is almost as if the ironic musings of 5 Years Time (one of the best number one songs of the decade, albeit on its second release) never happened. For Marling’s debut Alas I Cannot Swim, produced by Whale front man and ex-boyfriend Charlie Fink, is much more ’serious’ than anything she was involved in before. It spins tales of odd characters, inner turmoil and certainly helped Marling belie her seventeen years. The album was also nominated for the Mercury Prize. Two years on and I Speak Because I Can arrives with Marling, now twenty, dragging the dark introspective poetry of her impressive debut kicking and screaming into a now confident, defiant and brilliant light.

One of the big problems with Alas I Cannot Swim is its inward nature. The songs are subtle and beguiling, drawing you slowly into Marling’s world, wrapping you in lyrical wonder and leaving you empty and numb. In contrast I Speak Because I Can is a supreme expression of confidence. This is no more evident that in Marling’s vocals, strong, powerful and gutsy. This is an album about relationships, love, loss and womanhood, with depth and emotion filling the songs. Opening with the striking guitars of Devil’s Spoke, a song in three movements, an oddly shaky start brings a startling energy. Every inflection in Marling’s voice is coupled with a dramatic explosion of strings. The mid-section flirts with a change of direction as directness is replaced with melody, but the venom is still there into a transformed final whirling finale.

The same drama fills Rambling Man, with Joni Mitchell and Dylan overtones, and Marling in wonderful vocal form. The use of elegant backing vocals is a superb addition. “Let it always be known that I was who I am”, sings Marling defiantly on the chorus. The core of I Speak Because I Can is brimming with the same dramatic moments. From the outset the guitars on the eastern European folk odyssey Alpha Shadows are just begging to be let free. After a minute we get the first teasing taste of this excellence. “…the grey in this city is too much to bear; And I believe we are meant to be seen and not to be understood” brings the second incarnation before “I want to be held by those arms”. It is captivating. Another change into the last minute and the music and harmonies build into something new and fresh.

To complete the best of the album is the best song of all, the wonder that is Hope In The Air. Centred around the repeated chorus “No hope in the air, no hope in the water, not even for me, your last serving daughter” but offering so much more, this is a master class of vocal control; soft and sultry but powerfully feminine: “I have seen men provoked, and I have seen lives revoked, and I looked at my life and I choked, from there no more ever I spoke…”. A horror movie unfolding, the vocals develop and mature, as chilling piano bring an interlude before the rousing finale. The twist of the tale is the replacement in the chorus, becoming “…but no hope for me, your last serving daughter”.

Elsewhere there is not a bad song on the album. Made by Maid is gorgeously delicate folk song-writing from rural middle England. Blackberry Stone could be taken from Alas I Cannot Swim with its accusing self-deprecation: “You never did learn to let the little things go; you never did learn to let me be. You never did learn to let little people grow; you never did learn how to see” is bittersweet loveliness. The only moment of self-indulgence is a swirling string instrumental break. In one of the album’s only truly upbeat moments Goodbye England (Covered In Snow) is still a heartbreaking love song, dragging up the Marling-Fink past: “…And I wrote an epic letter to you, and it’s twenty two pages front and back but it’s too good to be used…”. More great harmonies introduce the final nostalgic tearful minute. What He Wrote approaches the same subject from a different angle, another simple guitar and vocal arrangement before Darkness Descends proves that you can add country to the mix and make it sound fresh and interesting.

Closing with the title track, which opens with the line “My husband left me tonight. Left me a poor and lonely wife”, this is not quite the best left to last but it’s close. Another mix of poise and drama, like Connor Oberst at his Bright Eyes best, the song ebbs and flows with neat musical touches right to the last exasperating seconds.

Laura Marling shows extreme versatility on I Speak Because I Can. Every song is a story, and a character, and a memory, all perfectly judged. At times it sounds as if Marling is possessed, channelling the souls of singers long passed, now give new voice. Producer Ethan Johns lets Marling breathe and adds depth when and where it is needed. As a singer leaving her teenage years behind this is the real sound of progress.
-- CS

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

2010 Music Chart - March

A busy month including some great reviews for Altsounds: Frightened Rabbit, Lisa O Piu and Chris Wood. Plus new albums from Laura Marling (to be reviewed!), Midlake, Blood Red Shoes and Kathryn Williams.
  1. I Speak Because I Can by Laura Marling
  2. The Betrayed by LostProphets
  3. The Winter of Mixed Drinks by Frightened Rabbit
  4. The Quickening by Kathryn Williams
  5. Acolyte by Delphic
  6. The Courage Of Others by Midlake
  7. July Flame by Laura Veirs
  8. When This Was The Future by Lisa O Piu
  9. Handmade Life by Chris Wood
  10. End Times by Eels
  11. Fire Like This by Blood Red Shoes
  12. Graceful Bow (EP) by Jason Ward
  13. Rotten Pear by Andrew Vincent

Thea Gilmore - Angels In The Abattoir Update (March 2010)

The end of March already? Another great song from Thea that was destined for Album No. 11 (currently untitled) called The Difference. Thea describes the song as 'a gentle musing on the passage of relationships in life'.

The Difference, recorded on the first day of making the new album, is a brilliant blend of Thea's magical voice and wonderful piano that becomes more prominent as the drama and emotion unfolds. If this song 'didn't quite fit in with all the other songs' for album 11, I'm not sure if this is a good or bad thing. An album of slow reflective piano ballads would probably be too much to ask so one or two of these gems cast aside to wind their way to us Angels is a privilege indeed.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Lisa O Piu - When This Was The Future Album Review (2010)

A review for Altsounds. Great to find this and even better that the album was better than I thought it would be. Engaging stuff.

Not a person but a band (well, a person and a band - Lisa ‘and more’), Lisa O Piu is a Swedish six-piece led by singer, song writer, guitarist and flautist Lisa Isaksson. The band’s debut album When This Was The Future is deliciously paradoxical and ironic, sounding for the most part like Kate Bush in her 1970s folk phase. This could also be a new take on the retro approach of Goldfrapp’s Seventh Tree, either of the recent Bat For Lashes albums, plus a dash of Portishead fronted by Emiliana Torrini. Comparisons aside, listening to Lisa O Piu is like entering a wonderfully unique world of folklore and perpetual autumn.

When This Was The Future opens with one of the album’s strongest songs, the swirling drama of Cinnamon Sea. From the outset Isaksson’s precise vocals and engaging tone draw you in toward the dark moody chorus. The flute (used with startling effect throughout the album) blends perfectly with the equally impressive guitar work. The central instrumental break is a highlight. The delicately beauty of Forest Echo is another early wonder with more brilliant strings. The musical interlude slows to a crawl before bringing back the flute and guitars.

The lyrics of Traitor unfold like an extended metaphor brimming with smart lyrics. “One more battle lost, before I even knew I was in it” and “…you dress almost like an officer but I thought that I was in command”. The first compelling couple of minutes transform into a different feel with time to breathe, intricate but uncomplicated. The Party starts like a 60s ballad or show tune reminiscent of early Dusty Springfield or Cilla Black. The vocal melody leads into a huge gamble. If you write a lyric like “We’re gonna play the most wonderful music you’ve ever heard” then you really have to deliver. Thankfully for Lisa O Pui the gamble pays off and the execution is exquisite. The band gets away with it in style right into the breathy last minute of flute.

Two is the nearest the album gets to prog-folk. This song has just about everything, enforcing the message of ’togetherness’. From the blended vocal/percussion opening, to the nursery rhyme twirl, what the song lacks in coherence it makes up for in ambition. To add even more to the kitchen sink, the produced vocals at the halfway point announce a subtle change as the song drifts into soft wordless vocals and shimmering strings/guitars. An interesting, if troubled, journey.

The slow deliberate poise of Equatorial Changes brings back the more subtle drama. Another great vocal arrangement, chorus and percussion. In When This Was The Future’s only instrumental, and only Swedish-titled song, Alvdans vid Kolarkojan, the composition is another piece of understated musical brilliance even without the vocal charms. This leads to closer And So On, and a final highlight. There is obvious electronica at the start and two moments of dramatic multi-layered vocals in this dystopian apocalyptic tale involving horses (an obsession for Isaksson), buildings falling like dominos and a world engulfed by rising seas. Stirring stuff right to the finish.

When This Was The Future is at its heart an old-fashioned folk album, subtle and elegant. As a band, Piu complement each other very well, with Isaksson at the core of the mystery and wonder. She never resists the chance to show off her skills as a flautist, adding extra dimensions to the formula. There is nothing mind-blowing here but the vision and the delivery alone make this an album full of sounds and textures from their unique magical world.
-- CS (for Altsounds)

Monday, 15 March 2010

Chris Wood - Handmade Life Album Review (2010)

A great new review for AltSounds (the album is great, whether the review is another matter :S). I've not been a huge fan of Chris Wood but I am now. This is his best album so far and he is a prolific song writer and musician.

The big problem with folk music is a lack of accessibility. It is a double-edged sword faced by musicians who have two choices: traditional songs in a traditional style, or new songs in a traditional style. Some get away with a third, often avoided, approach: to retell old stories in a new way (see Seth Lakeman, Eliza Carthy, Kate Rusby et al) but most stick to one of the common forms. This leads to a misinformed and unwarranted stigma which has listeners running for the hills. Thankfully Chris Wood is a veteran, a master and a prince among fools. Best known for his collaborations with Hugh Lupton and Andy Cutting, Wood has been going alone for a few years and with his latest solo album Handmade Life, it has reaffirmed his genius.

One thing Chris Wood does time and time again is makes contemporary events, delivered in a timeless yet old-as-time way, sound modern, and crucially, serious and relevant. This is the key to Handmade Life, and no more evident than on the powerful seven and a half minute centrepiece Hollow Point; brilliant storytelling (which is exactly what folk music mandates and why it exists - Wood is creating a song to stand the test of time about an important event in English history, fully expecting it to be taken up in years gone by a new breed of musicians) that doesn’t reveal its subject matter until you are drawn in. Starting with the dawn of just another day, as a man wakes from dreamy sleep and leaves his house. “It was a gorgeous summers morning; it was a gorgeous summers day. His cotton jacket was all he carried, as he walked out to face the day”, the story unfolds, and it is clear that something sinister is at work. A perfectly judged dark mysterious instrumental pause leads into the fourth minute and as the place names are dropped, anyone who follows the news will immediately realise what the song is about and what is about to happen. Wood repeats the opening verse after the powerful revelation, with more emotion and more relevance. An incredible song.

On the flipside of this, Spitfires is a beautiful picture of the British past and a perfect tribute to an iconic piece of history that is now open to abuse and misuse by those who may want to misrepresent. My Darling’s Downsized is a direct open-hearted love song far removed from Wood’s usual spitting anti-capitalist rhetoric with lines like “Now the sun in the morning somehow seems brighter, and everything’s righter than it was before; The coffee is richer, the eggs over easier; The breeze is just breezier, there’s cuddles galore”. It’s the knowing vocal inflections coupled with the delicate brass arrangement that breaths real-life into the song. Wood can’t resist fuelling the fire with “…my love for her cannot be overstated. It’s deep and it’s not final salary related”. Ever the protester even in the most tender of moments. Superb.

Much of Handmade Life is about removing oneself from enforced society. Closer The Grand Correction is another brilliant tale, this of a man embracing self-sufficiency. After offensively namedropping ’fatty’ Ray Mears (assumed to be ironic as Mears is more of a survivalist - maybe Hugh Fearnly-Wittingstall would have been a more accurate target) the song veers from food and drink to home-protection and into the latest banking crisis and recession. “And how strange then to call your accounting software ‘Sage’” is penned by someone who maybe outside the system but clearly aware of what it is and how destructive it can be. Choosing to end by being less than flattering for former Prime Minister Thatcher (“the vicious old spiv”), this is the song Billy Bragg never wrote. On an album of such poise and quality any problems are easily and obviously highlighted. In the second half Caesar suffers terribly from a horrible carnival-esque arrangement and some questionable vocals. It is the only issue on an otherwise engaging album.

Chris Wood’s overtly political stance may be a hard (and bitter) pill to swallow but you can’t fault the method. The juxtaposition of old and new, hard and soft, is a neat diversion tactic, enveloping the tough issues in a subtle controlled sound without compromising punch. The songs on Handmade Life are beautifully judged (late on the album drifts perfectly from the delicacy of Johnny East into the dark swirling seas of maritime life captured in Turtle Soup) and Wood breaks with previous convention to fill the sound with an exceptional group of musicians Andy Gangadeen, Robert Jarvis, Barney Morse Brown and Danny Wood. They all let Wood keep the stage while complementing his powerful observations perfectly. Anyone who thinks folk music is one-dimensional, irrelevant and out of touch should probably start here. Truly a master at work.

-- CS (for Altsounds)

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Sondre Lerche - Heartbeat Radio Album Review (2010)

A review for Altsounds. I really like this guy and I was a big fan of his debut album Faces Down in 2001. Then he disappeared but has made five albums since then (which I will check out). Sadly his sixth meanders along, lost in its own world. A few gems but a lot of dull lifeless pop.

Norwegian singer songwriter and guitarist Sondre Lerche has come a long way since his debut album Faces Down in 2001. Now, eight years on and five albums (including a movie soundtrack) later, Lerche releases his most eclectic album Heartbeat Radio. Featuring a plethora of ideas, textures and sounds, and Lerche’s best and most consistent vocal performance, his sixth album has much to admire but also a lot of twee, wistful romantic musings that quickly becomes trite and overbearing.

Comparison can quickly be drawn to Rufus Wainwright, although arguably Lerche is a better singer. He doesn’t, however, write better songs. And Heartbeat Radio highlights the good and bad of a clear talent, which is realised the most when a single idea stays true and focused and is not polluted by too much romantic wandering. One redeeming feature of all this is a tendency to transcend genre and style; Lerche is a bit of everything without being too much of anything; a bit like Jason Mraz. This was something so noticeable on his debut Faces Down and has stayed with him through the years.

Heartbeat Radio is propped up with a trio of solid pop songs. The first is the wonderful cool jazz of I Cannot Let You Go. From the subtle funky chorus to the sweet backing vocals it’s a great moment of clutter-free song writing. Lerche has a unique way with words as the line “The rubber band is wearing thin; bursting as reality kicks in” proves. Could be anything, or nothing. Or whatever you want it to be. Easy To Persuade is just as great, shimmering guitar pop that breaks into a rare horn section and the upbeat yet downbeat Almighty Moon, the weakest of the three, is lifted with a jolly chorus.

Obvious highlights aside, the rest of Heartbeat Radio is, sadly, a patchy affair. Opener Good Luck ambles through the verses accompanied by some great guitar work but the flat chorus drags it down. Then after a spirited half-time guitar break, strings take over and it all gets a bit mad. The frantic ending is a like a drunken night out; starts fun but soon descends into chaos. The title track is far too self-involved and gratuitously indulgent. “Tell me what you think about this song…?” is just asking for trouble. After that you have to get it spot on, especially when you repeat the demand into the last minute. But nothing happens. Don’t Look Now tries the same start/stop approach with added jangling guitars and a good, if repetitive, instrumental outro.

But that is about it. Pioneer is hopelessly dull, If Only is more sickly disco jazz and I Guess It’s Gonna Rain Today is Beatles without the melody. Words & Music is an irritating confused child-like metaphor (the subject of Lerche’s affections is ‘a poem’ one minute and ‘a sad little tune’ the next) and the plodding piano and percussion quickly turn into show-tune camp. And the tribute to George Lazenby is more of a damning critique than a heart-warming lament. Only the smooth orchestral closer Goodnight is anything to write home about thanks to great vocals.

What makes criticising Heart Beat Radio so hard is that Sondre Lerche is so damn likeable. From his charm, to his approach, to his lyrical wonderment, and his romantic wide-eyed and often double-edged observations, he is an accomplished musician. But too often he strays into mediocrity, in spite of a constant sense of fun and optimism. The highlights are made to sound better due to dross around them. Clearly Lerche has an ear for talent and has gathered an orchestra of musicians to help out but would benefit from a more consistent sound in the form of a regular backing band. Alternatively he needs to tone down the ambition and get back to writing better and more straight-forward songs.
-- CS (for Altsounds)

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

The High Wire - Odds And Evens (Single - 2010)

A quick single review for Altsounds...

Tim Crompton, Stuart Peck and Alexia Hagen are London trio The High Wire, whose sound is best described as dream-pop, a bit Maps, a bit Slowdive, but a lot of guitars and harmonies. And this is the band’s strength which is proved to great effect on the single Odds And Evens, taken from the album The Sleep Tape.

The song’s opening distorted buzz, drums and Crompton’s vocals instantly draw you in. As the swinging guitars and hypnotic vocal arrangement reveal the sweet tones of Hagen, a great chorus emerges. This is one of the finest songs on The Sleep Tape, and while the album lacks consistency and good song writing, this is a definitive finest hour (or few minutes at least). A great trick unfolds when the song slows to a crawl before slowly building to an anthemic finish with Hagen on top form yet again into the last minute.

This is a strong single from an otherwise weak collection of ideas and themes that litter The Sleep Tape. Those fans of this kind of delivery may well lap up the album’s lazy charms but the strength of Odds And Evens will leave most people wanting more of the same. For now we will have to wait.
-- CS (for Altsounds)

The High Wire - The Sleep Tape Album Review (2010)

Another for Altsounds. Great promise but failed to deliver ultimately. Shame. Hope they do well and get some better songs.

The High Wire are London trio Tim Crompton, Stuart Peck and Alexia Hagen and in another time and another place the band could be described as Shoegazers. They make the kind of dreamy pop that brings together the gorgeous twin vocals of Crompton and Hagen, coupled with layered guitars and keyboards; not so much a wall of sound, more a pile of marshmallows. So a concept album centred around sleep (or lack of it as the case may be) was the obvious choice. It’s a shame that the music they make is just as obvious.

The big problem with The Sleep Tape is the overbearingly lazy (deliberate or otherwise) feel to what should be well-crafted and well thought out music. The vocal qualities of Crompton and Hagen are used to good effect but often the arrangement is not intricate enough. It is not exploited to the full; a strength that is never maximised. Many bands can be described as safe, predictable and being ‘comfortable’. The High Wire give a new dimension to the word (ironic given the band’s name which suggests risk and danger).

The best of the album is highlighted when the songs are allowed to escape the drug-addled world of soft textures and fluffy clouds. New single Odds And Evens is a great example of what the band can do. The song glides quickly from distorted buzz into vocals and swinging guitars, and it’s the vocal arrangement that stands out. The chorus, in which Hagen provides the best vocals on the album, is exquisite. The boys play their part, filling in around as the track slows before building again for Hagen to deliver a fine finale. In The Sleep Tape’s best part, this is followed by the soft vocal tones of It’s No Secret, the slick sheen slowly drifting into hazy wordlessness. And before this, Honeycomb is the best of three instrumentals, building from a slow start, delicate then sliding into a space-aged coma.

Elsewhere The High Wire show mere glimpses of this quality. Opener The Midnight Bell, with high looping strings, ambles along into quaint vocal duelling before some neat guitar work forms the last two minutes. A good solid start that is never maintained as Hang From The Lights fails to impress as early Primal Scream, New Lovers is a short Maps imitation and, in spite of a decent ending, the title track is very flat. Likewise the Lennon-esque heavy-handed country vibes of Letting In The Light and the massive A Future Ending, while offering something a bit different, never fully satisfy. The latter’s dark buzz, drums and stomping guitars blend with androgynous vocals into a shuttering uncertain guitar break. And goes nowhere.

Late on the mid-tempo waltz Pump Your Little Heart could be another single and does an acceptable job of trying to be Spiritualized, but closer Bodyclocks (the third instrumental) sounds like the band left a music box open and went for a cup of tea. Hardly inspiring or original.

So The Sleep Tape is a frustrating listen. Comparisons to other, better, bands aside, The High Wire need to avoid being dragged into the world of style over substance as this is yet another example of a band with a distinctive, hypnotic and often engaging sound that more often than not fails to connect and engage. As a band that has much more to offer, we should all hope that the best is to follow.
-- CS (for Altsounds)

Monday, 8 March 2010

Frightened Rabbit - The Winter Of Mixed Drinks Album Review (2010)

A new review for AltSounds. So glad to get this - a great new album from a band who don't seem to know how great they are. Excellent.

Now a fully fledged five piece, Scottish indie band Frightened Rabbit follow up The Midnight Organ Fight with a much bigger third offering. Originally just a solo project for Scott Hutchison, the band became a trio in 2005 and now, in an attempt to become Selkirk’s answer to Arcade Fire (or maybe The Polyphonic Spree), has added two new members to the ever increasing line-up. The result of this is The Winter Of Mixed Drinks, an album layered with swathes of guitars, keys, strings and backing vocals, sitting somewhere between the gloom and dirt of fellow kinsmen Glasvegas and the wide-eyed world of British Sea Power.

Buzzing and shimmering slowly into the life, Things opens The Winter Of Mixed Drinks in very understated style until Hutchison emotionally declares: “I didn’t need these things, I didn’t need them all”. The song’s premise of discarding those possessions that are not as important as the person you are longing for is beautifully delivered, letting the words take centre stage. As the guitars rise in the final minute, it is clear that this is a teasing introduction to a band who, after years in the darkness, now wants to be noticed.

An immediate early highlight Swim Until You Can’t See Land follows in style, proving that Hutchison can deliver an anthemic pop song, right out of the vaults of Idlewild or Snow Patrol. “Are you a man, are you a bag of sand?”, he asks amid the jangling sparkling guitars, handclaps and leaping drums. Magnificent song writing. If anything it repeats unnecessarily in the last minute, but you can’t fault a band for exploiting such a great lyric. The Loneliness and the Scream is much slower and takes a while to get going, lacking a structure until just under two minutes in, whereupon it slows to a halt only to return with a rousing choir of chanting howling vocals. Style over substance? Probably, but the band still sound fantastic right into the football terrace ending.

Next up, The Wrestle opens with pumping bass, adding thundering guitars and quickly ascending into a rousing torrent of vocals. After such a good start, The Winter Of Mixed Drinks threatens to become obvious and predictable. Granted the band is playing to strengths and doing what they know best but the songs are beginning to lack substance. Thankfully the six minute odyssey Skip The Youth, emerging from a tremendous wall of building industrial noise before the more delicate combination of Hutchison and guitar take over, gets things back on track. Another exquisitely arranged and performed song, this time the lack of discernible frame and closing stadium vocals is a fine, if messy, addition.

Another spiralling slice of pop perfection arrives in the shape of Nothing Like You. Even with the clumsy lyrics: “She was not the cure for cancer. And all my questions asked for answers” followed by the wonderful: “There is nothing like someone new. This girl she was nothing like you”, this is pure excellence from start to finish. Skipping quickly past the interlude Man / Bag of Sand which would have worked much better as an extension of Swim Until You Can’t See Land, FootShooter is another open-hearted piano-driven anthem with Hutchison’s stream-of-consciousness style of poetic delivery interspersed with more glorious vocal backing. A great chorus lifts an otherwise flat arrangement. A song of subtle understated majesty.

More proficient lyricism and backing vocals can be found within Not Miserable, slow and deliberate in the first half, repeated yet more urgent in the second, this builds elegantly into a frenzy of drums and strings. The third of the most obvious radio-friendly songs, thanks to another simple chorus, Living In Colour suffers slightly from the relentless pounding drums and threatening repetition. Even through his often awkward mumbling voice, Hutchison can fill songs with depth and emotion: “And as the night started swallowing. You put the blood to my blue lips. Forced the life through still veins. Filled my heart with red again”. And strings fill the final thirty seconds. Closing with Yes, I Would, The Winter Of Mixed Drinks draws out a falsetto from Hutchison; both a pleasant surprise and baffling turn-around in equal measure. Only Frightened Rabbit can get away with this outpouring of emotion coupled with trite handclaps that would have Coldplay running for the hills.

Frightened Rabbit is obviously building on earlier cult success and The Winter Of Mixed Drinks certainly makes no pretence about the band’s intentions and the five-piece consistently make good use of a strong formula. It often gets too comfortable and hard layers of sound often protect the softness beneath, but within this are real moments of quality. There is no doubt that Frightened Rabbit is formed from talented musicians (especially the shabby charm of Hutchison), the album is well-crafted and, in spite of a tendency to throw everything into the mix, the music is controlled and polished. This is an assured and definitive step up for a band who are now well up amongst their peers.
-- CS (for AltSounds)

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Kathryn Williams - The Quickening Album Review (2010)

Ever since Little Black Numbers was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2000 the world has been waiting for Kathryn Williams to make another truly great album. The follow-up Old Low Light and 2005’s Over Fly Over reinforced the notion that Williams is slowly but steadily moving further away from the wide-eyed innocence and teasing innuendo of her sophomore work. Only the cover-song project Relations has brought out the quality and depth, thanks to a mature and less than obvious choice of pieces, but also due to musical proficiency and a genuine love of the material. Since then, and with Williams still not a household name, it feels like she is now further away, from where she wants to be, than ten years ago.

The Quickening (the term for the stage of pregnancy when a foetus begins to move in the womb) is a different approach for Williams. In the search for spontaneity, but still trying to capture the feel of a ‘band’ experience, the album was spawned from a collection of completed songs and a group of musicians, most of whom had not heard a note before entering the studio. The songs were recorded live, usually in less than a few takes and the whole process took less than a week. And the quest for a new direction away from the more obvious regime has paid off.

The core of The Quickening is beautifully familiar. After the impressive dark opener 50 White Lines, which with it’s cold stark voice-under (predictably counting up from one to fifty as a strong metaphor for a life of touring) sounds like a Lemon Jelly remix, Just A Feeling leaps and rolls like a Nick Drake masterpiece: “sad songs don’t sound so sad in the sun…”. Brilliant musicianship from all involved, especially Williams who finds incredible power from soft vocals. Wanting and Waiting is a superb love-song centred round the 9 to 5 grind: “The city between us feels big and wide as a mountain range” is gorgeous delivery and song writing. Likewise the awful pun-titled Noble Guesses is exactly what you expect, with a simple gliding chorus, and more wonderful piano/guitar combination. Into the last minute and the voice layering stutters slightly but soon recovers. This is the bread and butter.

But not all of The Quickening is typical and safe. Just Leave is the real sound of progress as Williams is well out of her shell with spectacular effect. Musically the odd, oscillating, often spooky, music contemplates the lifted vocals and piano. Another excellent song. A different side of Williams arrives with the duo of Cream of the Crop and There are Keys. Both are the right side of easy listening, fused with sultry jazz, without the need for a big band. The former has a wonderful Alison Moyet-esque vocal performance matched by an equally perfect backing, cumulating with an atmospheric xylophone solo followed by an exquisite final minute. Five minutes of pleasant surprise. The former takes the same concept and blends in more dark depths. Up North continues the darkness, a sinister folk lament filled with a plethora of ideas, none of which get in each others way. And closer Starlings ends where we began. This is nothing more than the idea of The Unthanks singing over a reading of the Shipping Forecast. New, interesting and mesmerising.

Only on a few occasions does the album lapse. Winter Is Sharp is overtly folk with delicate dual vocals and melody over spiky guitars and strings. The short Black Oil is a glimpse of something much bigger, as if Williams discarded the first three minutes and distilled and refined what was left into less than a minute and a half. Little Lesson kind of works thanks to an upbeat foot-stomping arrangement but Williams’ vocals are way too high. A shame as it could have been an immediate highlight. It also doesn’t really go anywhere and could fill out into a massive rousing anthem involving the whole band. Maybe if Guy Garvey was producing…

With The Quickening , Kathryn Williams has breathed new life into her music. The new approach has produced one of her best albums, simply due to the diversity and forced pressure bringing energy and quality to often wonderful songs from a talented wordsmith. Yes it’s dark and moody and light and breezy. Exactly where Williams should be going. And now ten years after the impressive album that got her noticed, The Quickening is back in that beguiling, introspective world that we loved in the first place. To risk a cliché, this is a real and honest return to form.

-- CS

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The end of BBC 6music?

I will be the first to admit that I don't listen to BBC 6music these days as much as I would like. I used to listen to the radio a lot more than I do now but rarely have the time. Like most radio, I enjoy the fringes more than the mainstream. I choose Guy Garvey and Tom Robinson over Steve Wright and Chris Evans, purely on the choice of music they play. Same goes for Gideon Coe and Andrew Collins. Speaking of Mr. Collins, when 6music started (and I have been listening to the station on and off right from the very start), he had the afternoon show and I was not only a regular listener but an avid contributor. I was frequently emailing AC during the show, taking part and ending every one of my emails with the immortal request (nay, demand) P.S. PLAY MORE 10,000 MANIACS!!! Collins played the great band once and Natalie Merchant and co. (as they were then) really don't get enough air time. This was also a great attention-grabbing trick and immediately got me noticed. When Craig Charles (incidentally his funk and soul show is fantastic) sat in for Collins, he read this out only to provoke the response from the producer mumbling in the background: "he always says that...". It remains a highlight of my life, that and having my name read out a lot on national radio. But I digress...

BBC 6music has attracted wonderful talent, some that don't know what they are doing and most that do, some actual musicians and 'celebs', but also great broadcasters and journalists. Everyone from Bob Dylan to Phil Jupitus (who had a fantastic breakfast show back when the only alternative was Wogan, which is now helmed by Shaun Keaveny). Steve Lamacq is the closest thing we have to the late great John Peel, Lauren Laverne is proving she is more than just plain gorgeous, whereas Adam & Joe provide off-the-wall comedy and observations. Recently Jon Richardson has made a name for himself after taking over the Sunday morning slot from Russell Howard. For those of you that can remember that far back, this was the original Russell Brand slot, way before J. Ross led him astray... I hope some of the current line-up make it onto the core BBC radio shows proposed for Radio 2, as this quote suggests:

Radio 2 needed to "sharpen its distinctiveness in its range of music and speech" and while the quality of local radio should be increased, he [Mark Thompson] proposed sharing more programmes across outlets during off-peak periods.

The second part of this is quite worrying, not so much the off-peak bit but as someone who finds local radio lacking in quality and interest, I wouldn't complain if one of the presenters went local. But I doubt it would be my area and they would less likely be accept being 'downgraded'.

It is important to note that 6music is not the only casualty here. I would like to say that I don't care about Asian Network. I have never listened to it and I have had no desire to do so. This has nothing to do with anything other than my preferred choice of music and culture. But I can't help empathising with the inevitable backlash. The minorities are always the first to go. But is the end of 6music and Asian Network a good thing? Some have said that by diversifying the BBC have in fact segregated and pushed minorities (both racially and musically-inclined) to the sidelines and away from the mainstream. So what? I like being an outsider and liking music that none of my commercial middle-of-the-road 'obvious choice' friends like. But in some ways I would like the new music played on 6music to be taken up by Chris Evans and Mark Radcliffe on Radio 2 once in a while. The latter is very good at doing this by the way. 6music is an important outlet for showcasing new music, recorded and live. No way radio 2 gets close to this. I hope it will.

This is part of a much bigger strategic review of the BBC including scaling down the superb website and online services (BBC report). I hope the iPlayer doesn't suffer as much of my listening these days is after the event or via podcast (if the music is not the focus). This, obviously, has been a great development. But there is no substitute for sharing a radio show with other people as it happens, including the presenter (the worst thing the BBC did recently was to prerecord Ross's Saturday - or not - show); also something missing from the hapless attempts at people filling in for the talent at Christmas and the like. Live radio is a spiritual experience that just does not satisfy when you know that the person on the other end of the microphone is actually out shopping or spending time with the family. How dare they?

Anyway, this is the end of BBC 6music and I really do feel sad about that. Most of the time it feels like radio made just for me. When 6music started I felt part of something. And I still feel part of it. That is now going to end. Not for a while, but the end is inevitable.

So thanks to the BBC. Thanks 6music. And thanks Andrew Collins.

-- Chris.