Wednesday, 30 June 2010

2010 Music Chart - June

A huge month for new music thanks to an influx of activity for the music website In One Ear. New albums from Seth Lakeman, Suzanne Vega, The Chemical Brothers, Crystal Castles and Feeder. Plus an honorary mention for Trent Reznor's new project How To Destroy Angels.
  1. I Speak Because I Can by Laura Marling
  2. Brothers by The Black Keys
  3. High Violet by The National
  4. This Is Happening by LCD Soundsystem
  5. The Betrayed by LostProphets
  6. The Winter of Mixed Drinks by Frightened Rabbit
  7. Sea Of Cowards by The Dead Weather
  8. Further by The Chemical Brothers
  9. Acolyte by Delphic
  10. The Courage Of Others by Midlake
  11. Close-Up Volume 1: Love Songs by Suzanne Vega
  12. July Flame by Laura Veirs
  13. Year Of The Black Rainbow by Coheed & Cambria
  14. How To Destroy Angels EP by How To Destroy Angels
  15. The Quickening by Kathryn Williams
  16. Hearts & Minds by Seth Lakeman
  17. Immersion by Pendulum
  18. When This Was The Future by Lisa O Piu
  19. Handmade Life by Chris Wood
  20. End Times by Eels
  21. Crystal Castles (II) by Crystal Castles
  22. Fire Like This by Blood Red Shoes
  23. Graceful Bow (EP) by Jason Ward
  24. Rotten Pear by Andrew Vincent
  25. Renegades by Feeder

Feeder - Renegades Album Review (2010)

First up I am a huge Feeder fan. That's what made this such a difficult review and one, on hearing the album for the first time, I didn't want to write. But I never back away from a challenge and I subjected myself to repeated listens to hear if it was just my initial reaction. Sadly, no. Ultimately I like the review even though the album is a real problem and I think I have made my views clear in a concise (for me) and honest way.

The review for In One Ear:

Feeder makes the kind of melodic indie-rock that most bands can only dream of. Brilliant lyrics blended into a plethora of wondrous anthemic stadia-worthy choruses, hooks and soaring verses. Or at least they did. Once. After a wonderful run of albums, the tragic death of original drummer Jon Lee produced Feeder’s best work, Comfort In Sound, and this remains a beautiful lasting tribute to Lee. Still with much to offer, Grant Nicholas and Taka Hirose continued but Feeder were never the same and, in spite of the spirited and uplifting follow-up Pushing The Senses, the band’s last album Silent Cry is sadly lacking in ideas and focus. A return to the liberated early energy of Feeder’s wonderful debut Polythene was required. The band had the right idea but Renegades is the disastrous result.

To put this into perspective you need to understand how Renegades was conceived. After Silent Cry and in the summer of 2009, Feeder’s second drummer Mark Richardson left to rejoin his former band Skunk Anansie, to be replaced by Karl Brazil (from the woeful Ben‘s Brother). Later that year Nicholas, Hirose and Brazil changed the name of the band for what was to become a side-project called Renegades. It seemed as if Feeder was no more. Renegades toured the new “loud, uninhibited and exhilarated sound of Feeder doing what they want without a care in the world”. And herein lies the problem. The band’s reason for this was to play new different songs and not just roll out the old Feeder hits, and whereas the band reverted to the name Feeder, the Renegades ‘alias’ caused much confusion. This identity crisis has now manifested itself in the seventh Feeder album.

The problems start early on Renegades. Grant Nicholas is always the fourth instrument in the Feeder three-piece. His voice is always full of passion and emotion, not just in the softer gliding ballads but the big faster moments of blistering punk-pop. Renegades mostly comprise the latter but without Nicolas’s wonderful vocals. Mostly, his voice is flat and gritty, devoid of any melody. As for harmonies, there aren’t any. Opener White Lines is a muddy swirling vortex of guitars and repetitive rock lyric clichés. This is the next issue: the lyrics. This is further evident on Call Out: “If you wanna hear this song, you won’t have to wait too long…just call out” is the rather uninspired lacklustre chorus. The horrible vocal echo on the title track is a lame attempt to inject some emotion into a song that sums up the position: “we must hold on, yeah, we must hold one yeah, “we are not the problem”, sings Nicholas in what must be irony, and then “we must find out who we are”. All this framed by inane thumping drums.

Moving on, things don’t get much better. Saying that, Sentimental is a decent attempt at early Nirvana with great guitar work. In contrast This Town, while well intentioned and thoughtful in its subject matter, is a horrible mishmash of other songs. It just doesn’t work. And the big five minute epic Down By The River is trying desperately to be classic Feeder with no ideas and no lyrics. And the vocal echo is back. “We climbed every mountain, we crossed every bridge, just to get back to you, where the other side live” is probably the worst line Nicholas has written. The great opening of Home is subsequently ruined by the vocals and even though the chorus attempts a much needed lift, we are yet again subjected to thoughtless song writing as Nicholas asks “is this the right way?” and the crass “I know you like it…” montage. The least said about Barking Dogs the better - flat and uninspired and possibly the worst Feeder song ever written.

Late on, Renegades does provide a few rays of hope. City In A Rut is genuinely good, like the token pop-punk track on any of Feeder’s other very good albums. The guitars are superb and Nicholas does his best with the few words and ideas he has. Left Foot Right could be bad Kasabian and a melodic chorus suffers from a shaky vocal. Again it’s a serious subject wrapped up in a questionable delivery. But it’s the last song, appropriately named for so many reasons, The End, that provides the final insult. Nicholas croons “This is me, I can’t be someone else. I won’t be someone else” followed by “is this the end of the road?”. More irony one hopes.

Renegades sounds like Feeder pretending to be another band. And maybe that’s the point. Like Peter Cook and Dudley Moore as their retched darkly funny and obnoxious alter egos Derek And Clive, Feeder are now this down and dirty rock band. If this is so, why go back to the name Feeder? Why go back and be someone you are not? Cynics would say it was marketing and ‘free publicity’ to keep fans interested. Hopefully not. And forgetting about the fact that Renegades rarely translates into any form of good music, why tarnish the name of Feeder with such obvious catharsis? As a huge Feeder fan I really hope that this is just that: Grant Nicholas getting all of the past out of his system so that Feeder, as they did with Comfort In Sound, can return to their superior and majestic best, very soon.
-- CS (for In One Ear)

Monday, 28 June 2010

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

Back from seeing Thea at Glastonbury :) and a song for June. Reason Enough is the 12th song from Thea during the Angels In The Abattoir project and one of her best. Described as "A song about love I guess.. and viewing yourself with the eyes of someone you love to try and improve the way you do things", this may not sound like Thea in a 'good place' but it is. More great lyrics: "I'm so tired of chasing answers, with my back against the wall..." and the Crowded House-esque "...I will earn your love... that is reason enough...". Beautiful song writing.

I have enjoyed being a part of Angels In The Abattoir and will continue supporting the project.

Glastonbury 2010

So I’m back from Glastonbury 2010 (the 40th anniversary!). It was hot, sticky (TMI?), busy, noisy, smelly, but above all… bloody marvellous. I’ve been twice before (2003 and 2004) and despite being underwhelmed by the headliners this year there was plenty to draw me to the ‘other’ stages. Highlights for me were Mumford & Sons and The Black Keys at John Peel on Friday, Laura Marling and Midlake at The Park on Saturday, and (of course) Orbital on the Other Stage on Sunday.

This was my festival…


I arrived on Friday morning at 11 ish and headed straight for the Park area to find a campsite. I was aiming for Park Hill or even the Dairy Ground as I knew Pennard Hill would be packed. I lucked out when I saw a couple of people moving pitch and grabbed it - just off the path to the south of the Dance field opposite the Other Stage. Away from the hedge, slightly in shade, and flat. Perfect.

First up was Seth Lakeman at Crossiant Neuf which was very busy and I didn’t have a great view. He sounded on top form though. After a bite to eat, I wandered back past the Tipis to The Park for the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble then back up through the packed markets to get my first proper view of the Pyramid. Snoop Dog was on, effing and blinding and doing this thing so I made for my destination for the evening, John Peel, via the Dance Village.

Two bottles of water and a slice of pizza later I arrived just in time to see the end of Ellie Goulding (in very fetching hot pants and flailing blond hair) and snaked my way under the canopy (John Peel is the only big stage that is covered by an enormous ceiling which turns to whole thing into a sweaty greenhouse). Mumford & Sons were fantastic and even though I wasn’t a massive fan before, I am now. Surprisingly quite a few people left after and during their sound check, I got further forward for The Black Keys. Another amazing set, with most songs just the two of them and Patrick drumming his heart out. There was what seemed like a huge wait for the headliners Groove Armada. I had never seen these guys live and they are Glastonbury veterans and (from what I had seen, and heard) always put on a good show. I was not disappointed as they mixed new stuff with old with a very energetic new front woman Saint Saviour on vocal duties. A mesmerising laser show was a visual highlight.


I got up surprisingly early on Saturday morning and headed straight for the Green Fields and stone circle. Lots of people about, not all of them conscious. I got a couple of bacon bagels and an energy drink smoothie (I didn’t ask what was in it but it did the job) and went for a sit down in the sun.

First band of the day was Coheed & Cambria, back at the Other Stage, who made a glorious racket. A huge crowd for early in the day and lots of talk of Kate Nash later. I had a tough decision to make and one that I had still not made. Do I stay at the Other Stage for The National or head for the even busier Pyramid for Seasick Steve and then The Dead Weather? Over some lovely Mexican chicken, rice and beans and lime iced tea I mentally flipped a coin and made for the Pyramid. One of the reasons was The National (who were bound to start late) clashed with Thea Gilmore at Leftfield and no matter how hard you try, the irony of actually being at Glastonbury is that you can’t see all the bands. Seasick was great and a real crowd pleaser (he got a girl out of the audience for Walkin’ Man) but most of the hangers on didn’t really get White and Mosshart in what was more of a dark downbeat set. They would have been better on a smaller stage later in the day. Some odd song choices too, especially from the new album Sea of Cowards. Apparently The National were superb but not really a ‘festival’ band - something contradicted by the guys I was chatting to on the train on the way home.

So I did manage to get to Leftfield for most of Thea Gilmore’s set. Again it was packed but very respectful and Thea was resplendent in a gold and white sleeveless t-shirt. The guitar-free Icarus Wind was incredible. I wanted to meet Thea but thought that she would think I was a creepy stalker or something. And she seemed to vanish after the set. So from one superb female to another - Laura Marling at the Park. I had heard that she was on stage at 7:30 which made little sense as she was on second from last. Turns out it was 9.30. So when I got there some band (I assume it was the surprise set from Biffy Clyro) were just finishing and then it was Candi Staton. I had a wander around The Park, got a horrible hotdog and a beer (first of the weekend) and headed back for what was another brilliant night. Staton showed Florence Welch exactly how to sing You Got The Love and Marling was with her band which worked better on The Park stage and I’m sure a couple of new songs (maybe older ones) slipped by. The headliners were the majestic Midlake, again full of emotion and energy with the songs from latest album The Courage Of Others. Even the news of The Edge joining Muse on the Pyramid didn’t drag me away from this one.

Wanting to make the most of the festival (and still buzzing from Marling/Midlake) I had a quick trip over to Shangri La, Block 9 (this place is weird) and Avalon (I resisted the urge to venture too far into the Cabaret areas). There is always plenty going on ‘after dark’ including strange puppet shows, fire throwers/eaters, and circus acts. There was a huge crowd singing round a campfire (turned out this was Bombay Bicycle Club). I thought about seeing Oli Brown at Bourbon Street but a) he was due on at 1am, b) I couldn’t find the place, and c) I was knackered. So I called it a night.


Woke early on Sunday but didn’t leave the tent until 10 - and only because it was just too hot. Got a late breakfast, juice and coffee and went to the Other Stage for Frightened Rabbit. The Joy Formidable were finishing up in front of a sparse crowd as I found a decent spot. Taking full advantage of a big venue, Frightened Rabbit were excellent mainly thanks to material from the brilliant Winter of Mixed Drinks album. Then it was Norah Jones at the Pyramid. Got some water and fruit and sat down on the grass with a good view of the central big screen. A really mellow set from an artist I had fallen out of love with in the last few years. Discarding piano for guitar (maybe because she was ‘opening for Slash’), the Johnny Cash cover Cry, Cry, Cry was great.

Then was the small matter of the World Cup. The festival opened a field especially to show it and thousands of people made their way across the grounds. Including me. I wish I hadn’t. I was hot and tired. I didn’t need to be annoyed too.

Back to the music, and with slightly deflated spirits, I always try to see a new band (new to me anyway) at Glastonbury and this year was no exception. And I hadn’t been to the Queen’s Head yet so Field Music followed by I Am Kloot was a tempting prospect. I got an early snack and wandered over. Not sure about Field Music but Kloot were great - again I’m not a huge fan but recognised many of the songs. And it wasn’t that busy.

For the final stint I had another choice. This could be (and I would be surprised if it wasn’t) my only chance to see Stevie Wonder live. But getting anywhere close to the guy was impossible. Likewise this could be LCD Soundsystem’s last big gig and I would never see them. And given that I had discarded Orbital for Muse before, and the mighty Hartnoll brothers were headlining, I gave up Faithless and Wonder and spent an exhilarating night at the Other Stage. I don’t think James Murphy was expecting a crowd at all, let alone one as big and full of energy as LCD Soundsystem got. The set was a bizarre mix of reworked hits (a very funky Daft Punk Playing at my House) and more straight-forward new stuff from This Is Happening. As you would expect most people were actually there for Orbital and after another long wait, the finale to the weekend kicked off. Opening with the blazing Satan, a cornea shattering light show complimented what amounted to a supreme DJ set of continuous brilliance, all topped off with a surreal appearance from Matt Smith (the new Doctor) and a rousing rendition of the Doctor Who theme. Even Smith seemed to wearing the classic ‘head torch’ glasses as he helped on the decks.

So 17 artists in three days and the site bathed in sunshine. I didn’t get to see Stevie but apparently he was everything his genius would suggest. Even with the finale duet of Happy Birthday with ‘flat’ Michael Eavis.

Happy Birthday Glastonbury. Thank you.

Monday, 21 June 2010

The Chemical Brothers - Further Album Review (2010)

Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons return to their DJ roots for album seven.

For In One Ear (thanks again SG!).

Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons have returned to their DJ roots for their seventh album Further. Or so The Chemical Brothers would have us believe. Ever since the name-change inspired debut Exit Planet Dust fifteen years ago, Tom and Ed have produced consistently beguiling, intriguing and wonderful music fusing electronic big beats with equally big name guest vocalists. But no album since has attempted to capture the essence and the raw energy of the debut; the swirling vortex of sounds that blend into one another to create a huge behemoth of duelling, almost improvised, dance music. This was attempted on the last album We Are The Night, most notably the excellent Saturate and mesmerising Burst Generator (later included as part of the original Battle Weapons series on the Brotherhood singles) - both born from an old-school experimental approach. This is a spectacular u-turn in the wake of previous album, the brilliant Push The Button.

The big difference with Further is the (optional) inclusion of visuals. The full version of the album is a DVD of videos to accompany each song, developed by Adam Smith and Marcus Lyall, the stark vibrant images moving in time with the music. This isn’t quite the collaboration that formed Gorillaz but something much more subtle, with videos designed to compliment the music and not the other way round. Without these, Further is still a captivating audio experience. From the slightly subdued opener Snow, gliding from Morse code to pulsating psychedelia within a laboured five minutes, to the epic shimmering shoe gazing indie of Wonders Of The Deep, the Chemical Brothers deliver their most understated work to date. There are no big obvious singles, no hard-hitting dance floor fillers, and no epic stadium finale. It is like one massive slow build-up that ends in chilled-out ambivalence.

At nearly twelve minutes, the mighty Escape Velocity is an early highlight. As the remnants of Snow melt away (too obvious?) in the first minute, the soundscape builds in the second to be replaced suddenly by stuttering and wavering bass that finally gives way to drums and synths. This is typical Chemical Brothers given a low-fi treatment. Four minutes in and things really take a discernable shape and almost immediately descend into a slow whirling vortex of bends and curves, to build again at the half way point, this time with more purpose. A serious lull forms much of the seventh minute before a Beatles-esque cacophony of noise brings back… much of the same. The final three minutes is livened by a mix of textures, more swirling beats and neat layering before it just fades away into a series of repeated bleeps.

Of the rest, Dissolve is an obvious crowd pleaser, sitting somewhere between Tomorrow Never Knows and Oasis circa Be Here Now. A central riff is revisited constantly and held together with buzzing space-aged circuitry. This is built around a familiarly obvious framework of loud, quiet, loud into the last pulsating minute and a half. Disappointingly it chooses to fade out rather than go out with a bang. Likewise Swoon is also impressive, after an uncertain opening suddenly jumping into life like a long lost Orbital masterpiece. “Just remember… to fall in love”, echo the vocals over and over within the siren-like synths. It all comes together when the drum tracks kick in and the ideas start to flow, the start/stop formula used with expert effect. Easily the high point of Further. Following this, K+D+B is more soulful but lacks substance and a decent vocal arrangement. And Another World could be Lemon Jelly at their most eclectic with Rowlands on rare vocal duties amongst the shifting backwards beats and cymbal-heavy percussion. But at the heart of Further is the absurdly good Horse Power. Only the Chemical Brothers could pull off such a stupendous near-six minutes of repeated vocoder and horse samples and make it sound even vaguely like a credible piece of music.

Further isn’t an immediate triumph but it’s certainly interesting. The Chemical Brothers continue to set a high standard and in trying to return to the musical style that inspired them, and brought their sound into the mainstream, they have taken less of a u-turn and more a sidestep. The lack of high profile collaborations (the understated inclusion of Stephanie Dosen aside) is a positive here. Further is much more real, much more intimate and personal, and much more a Chemical Brothers album, because of it. And the live shows will be as good as ever, with or without visuals. But you can’t help thinking that in making the kind of album they wanted to in the early years, the Chemical Brothers now lack many of the big ideas that got them this far.

-- CS (for In One Ear)

Chemical Brothers - Further Videos teaser

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles (II) Album Review (2010)

A review for In One Ear. A really frustrating listen.

The duo of vocalist Alice Glass and producer Ethan Kath became Crystal Castles in 2004 when Kath (at the time a solo musician) asked Glass to provide vocals for a collection of instrumental tracks. He was looking for the ‘missing ingredient’ and appeared to find it when a secret recording session turned into the debut single ‘Alice Practice‘. The band’s debut is an astonishing mix of vibrant 8-bit computer electronica, punk and dance that sounds like it was formed within the twisted insides of a 1980 Pac-man arcade machine. And now, following the band’s diverse eponymous debut, the second album has, imaginatively, the same name. It is equally diverse but not in a good way.

As you might expect, when Crystal Castles (II) is good, its very good. And this immediately shows a promising progression. Gone are the thumping drums, the spiky keys and the distorted howling vocals and in comes soft, gliding serenity and Glass actually attempting to sing, even though for the most part you can’t hear her clearly - but not because the feedback is too thick but due to the marshmallow production. The early highlight is undoubtedly Celestica and a great example of the band’s new found shimmering pop sound. Glass delivers a perfect vocal melody and explosive choruses while Kath adds some harder edges. But with the exception of some curious squeaks and bleeps, the song mostly stays the right side of listenable. The effect is not too far from Dubstar in their prime. In almost the same way, but with added vocoder, Suffocation uses the same approach, never threatening to descend into noise and chaos. It takes a while to get going but Empathy is equally vibrant, a constant juxtaposition of pulsing beats, gliding strings and soft vocals.

The flip side of all this is the big problem with Crystal Castles (II). Opener Fainting Spells is designed to put off the casual listener. As a manic mix of screaming vocals, razor-edged keyboards and disjointed drums, even Trent Reznor would struggle to justify this to kick off a new album. Likewise Doe Deer (at just over a minute and a half and laughingly released as a 12 inch single), is just as awful. What makes this even more horrible is a great guitar riff throughout the nonsense. Continuing the pain, the vocals on Baptism drag the whole thing back to the bad old days, and Birds is ruined by some absurd electronic blips. Intimate is okay for two minutes forty seconds and then for some reason it all gets stuck in a seemingly endless barrage of noise. Then Crystal Castles (II) closes as it began, with I Am Made Of Chalk - a truly agonising random mess.

But it is the middle ground that lifts the quality of the rest. The Jónsi (Sigur Rós) sampled Year Of Silence is inspired, Violent Dreams is oddly downbeat and Vietnam, also with vocals provided by Stina Nordenstam is wonderfully inoffensive. The upbeat Pap Smear gives a late lift as does the jolly Not In Love, with an even more bizarre robotic vocal production and stadium-esque finale.

Sometimes a band is its own worst enemy. Whether Glass is reluctant to let go of her punk roots or Crystal Castles (II) is the sign of a band heading slowly (and reluctantly) in a new, more stable, direction is open for debate but the fact remains: the album suffers from several stupendous (mis-)judgement calls. Given that there is a wealth of material and the good trying to make up for the bad, Crystal Castles should not be criticised for lapsing back to the sound that made the band’s early sound and debut release such an engaging prospect. But such is the gap between the tuneful and the tuneless that it doesn’t take a genius to work out which is the right approach - even if this means compromising style for substance. Crystal Castles really needs to make this distinction.
-- CS (for In One Ear)

Friday, 11 June 2010

Suzanne Vega - Close-Up Volume 1, Love Songs Album review (2010)

A review for In One Ear.

Here’s an idea. You’re a brilliant and well respected New York folk poet with seven superb albums and countless great songs, spanning twenty five years in the industry. What is your next move? The inevitable swathe of greatest hits? The live compilations? A Motown covers album in which you declare that you‘ve always loved the music and it was a massive inspiration even though you‘ve never mentioned it before? No, what you do is make four new albums of your own previously recorded songs. Precise, clean, honest, beguiling and fantastic in equal measure, Close-Up Volume 1, Love Songs is a new take on old material spanning Vega’s entire back catalogue.

As a collection of ‘love songs’, there are some less than obvious, and some very obvious, choices. A trio of albums boast nine of the twelve songs with no place for anything from the wonderful Days of Open Hand. You can argue that Book of Dreams is a perfect love song, as is Men in a War and we can only hope that they are both featured on another of these new quartet of records. Likewise you could pick most of the songs from Nine Objects of Desire and omit Headshots (which is featured) and include much of Beauty & Crime. But compilations are always subjective beasts and the listeners interpretation of what is a love song is not always aligned with the artist’s. This explains the material reworked from Songs In Red and Gray, written in the wake of Vega’s marriage break-up and now given a fresh retrospective, and more measured, take.

The trio of songs taken from Vega’s eponymous debut are amongst the best. Small Blue Thing is stripped of the sharpness and the distant vocal production, pushing Vega’s distinctive voice right into the foreground. The cluttered chorus is replaced by something much more ethereal. But the real surprise is the new version of the superb pop masterpiece Marlene On The Wall, slowed to a more sedate pace and simplified. The wonderful guitar work is still present but, like the vocal, pushed to the fore. The snide nasal bitterness in Vega’s voice is removed as is the percussion. Some Journey, a little known album track, is a brave choice given a new chance to shine. Not one of Vega’s best but it floats and drifts mysteriously at the end of Close-Up Volume 1, Love Songs unfolding as Vega muses on the possible roles in a relationship - a theme explored many times throughout her music.

Gypsy, the only song from Solitude Standing is treated exactly the same: the essence of the song is preserved within a new production and much cleaner sound with simple guitar and Vega’s exquisite matter-of-fact delivery creating the second instrument. In contrast (If You Were) In My Movie is rerecorded in very odd way, somewhere between the intimately acoustic and trying to get close to the original. If there was an obvious low point of the album it is this misjudgement.

Nine Objects of Desire is the source of the next three songs and more odd choices. Headshots, as mentioned, doesn’t strike as an immediate song of love, lust or even infatuation until the song steers that way into the last minute. And the slower delivery is very laboured. Caramel, which questionably features on Tried and True (1998s best of compilation) is actually a better version mainly due to Vega’s updated vocals and a very crisp acoustic guitar melody. And the overtly sensual Stockings is even more sultry, enhanced by a much clearer vocal, as if Vega is whispering a forbidden encounter to a lover rather than retelling a sordid tale to an much wider audience.

From the later work, there is more correlation with the vocal arrangements on the songs. This doesn’t stop Vega conjuring up a few diversions. From Songs in Red and Gray, (I’ll Never Be) Your Maggie May is given the bare bones treatment (gone is the harpsichord and percussion and in comes acoustic guitar), making the music and words stand out. In an album that deals with the before and after of divorce, the title track has little of the understated drama of the original but all of the pain. If anything the lack of huge musical movement and no production on the wordless chorus adds to the stark empty feeling. Harbor Song is equally stripped, most notably the bass and drums.

Close-Up Volume 1, Love Songs closes with Bound from Vega’s most recent album Beauty & Crime. The original is a superb piece of dramatic theatre with breathless angelic vocals, big drums, a guitar driven interlude, before a string laden build up to a magnificent soaring finale. How Vega reworks this in a new way is to go straight to the other extreme. And it works beautifully. No bass. No strings. No drums. Just a guitar and a voice.

Suzanne Vega is a legend to some and, in spite of diminishing commercial success in the last decade and the fact that it took a remix by DNA to make Tom’s Diner her biggest hit in 1990, she has continued to make music unlike anyone else. The quality of the song writing, the musicianship and performance on Close-Up Volume 1, Love Songs is not in question here but you have to ask yourself: what is the point of this endeavour? This feels as much a cathartic experience for Vega as it is a musical gift for the listener. She is not only trying to remind us of how great her songs are; she is trying to remind herself. But a huge part of music is time and place, a moment captured with all its purpose, perfections and faults, never to be redone. So the skill is to retain and enhance, respect and add new relevance. Suzanne Vega has found a unique way of revisiting her own brilliant music.
-- CS (for In One Ear)

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Made by Maid live by Laura Marling for Jools Holland

Seth Lakeman - Hearts and Minds Album Review (2010)

A review for In One Ear. Thanks to SG for this one :)

Seth Lakeman is for some the poster boy of the English folk scene, born in the heart of Dartmoor in a region soaked in history, heritage and stories, he now has an impressive trio of albums under his belt. From the battlefields of Freedom Fields and the oceans of Poor Man’s Heaven emerges the honest open-hearted politics of Hearts and Minds. For this album, Lakeman has enlisted the talents of prolific producer and recording engineer Tchad Blake who has worked with artists as diverse as Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega (on the brilliant 99.9F), Crowded House (the acclaimed Woodface) and Cheech & Chong (yes, really). On his working relationship with Blake, Lakeman described it as ‘a good learning experience’ and working together ‘has moved things forward’. The result is, even in the heavier moments, a softer collection of songs - the predictable violin always present accompanying Lakeman’s trademark earthy rasp.

A perfect example of the new ‘melody’ driven approach is the brilliant Stepping Over You, with quiet subtle verses exploding into vibrant flowing choruses. The song starts with simple banjo and vocal before filling in after a minute. Easily one of the best songs Lakeman has delivered, perfectly judged and controlled. This is a chance to muse on spirituality: ‘the secret scars that we all bear, as saints or sinners rising up from the earth into the air…’. This is reinforced with the final words: ‘learn a lesson if you can, a great belief is, in the hearts of every man’. But this is not just empty headed controversial liberalism, this is a message for a changing time echoing (somewhat fortuitously) the recent shifting political landscape in the United Kingdom. Spinning Days is also an early moment of seriousness. Not that Lakeman isn’t serious, but this is a very obvious fusion of control and melody designed to get even the most hardened gig goer reaching for the nearest lighter.

Hearts and Minds hits hardest when a more direct message is required. Opening with the title track and getting the more obvious rhetoric out of the way quickly, Lakeman seeks to separate the ‘suited men from the public schools’, attacking bailiffs and standing up for farmers, to remind us that there are ‘people in constant need’. This is in massive contrast to the less militant messages conveyed by most of the album. And the instrumental finale would make The Levellers rethink their entire approach to music. Superb. Likewise The Watchman is a metaphor for surveillance culture, ensuring travellers ‘a safe journey’ but really watching their every move. The middle ground is reached with See Them Dance. Instead of just adding a violin track, Lakeman works the song around it, creating a core thread for everything else to hang onto. More brilliant song writing.

Sometimes in a quest for something more mainstream Hearts and Minds veers slightly off track. Tiny World is bouncy folk-pop with a horribly trite chorus and a very thick string arrangement. This translates into an even thicker vocal collision later on. A bit like organised chaos, albeit annoyingly engaging and charming. Tender Traveller tells the story of a man on the run and ultimately accepting ones fate but the message is stretched thin. In the same way Hard Working Man stays just the right side of patronisation but the idea is stifled by an inane delivery.

Elsewhere there are a few surprises. No song deviates from what you would expect but some get close. The stabbing Signed and Sealed quickly moves from the more traditional to weave in eastern rhythms as the story is told, that of a man doomed to die in pursuit of wealth (’his mortal life caught and bound with one final debt to pay’). Immediately preceding this, Changes is delicate and poised, oozing just a bit too much radio-friendly charm. To finish, The Circle Grows is beautifully executed and after a wayward second half this gives Hearts and Minds some much needed stability.

Seth Lakeman has approached his fifth album with a wide-eyed optimism combined with deep rooted realism of the modern world. Much of the themes here involve injustice and prejudice, both modern and historical. It doesn’t always hit the mark and sometimes the message is confused and conflicted but that is the nature of tackling the big issues. Instead of steering away, Tchad Blake has pushed Lakeman further into those things his critics want him to leave behind with startling results. As a song writer Lakeman adds relevance by championing the common man rather than resorting to obvious and empty handed rabble-rousing. The core of folk music is story telling and Seth Lakeman is not only getting better musically but also narratively. Great musicians are great story tellers and this makes Hearts and Minds a progression and a triumph.

-- CS (for In One Ear)

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

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

The new song this month from Thea Gilmore is Devils Song (note the lack of an apostrophe). Thea describes it as follows: 'I guess its a bit of a musing on the nature of being a songwriter and how, no matter how in control of your art you think you are, its actually art that wears the trousers!'

The song is mid-tempo, dark echoing vocals, guitar led with some great piano. Excellent lyrics, sung with control and subtle menace in equal measure. Just what we expect from Thea and another fine song. It looks like Angels will go into a second year which is great news and I for one will be resubscribing for another round.