Saturday, 31 December 2011

2011 Music Chart - December

So another year comes to an end and here is the final 2011 Music Chart. A very quiet month with a couple of albums hitting the turntables: Pearl Jam Twenty and the new deluxe edition of U2's Achtung Baby (and Q magazine's version of covers - both not added to the chart). Fleet Foxes hold the number one spot and is still the Underwurld Music album of the year.
  1. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes
  2. A Creature I Don't Know by Laura Marling
  3. Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will by Mogwai
  4. Slave Ambient by The War On Drugs 
  5. Ashes Fire by Ryan Adams
  6. Last Night On Earth by Noah And The Whale
  7. Codes and Keys by Death Cab For Cutie
  8. Collapse Into Now by R.E.M.
  9. Belong by The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart
  10. 50 Words For Snow by Kate Bush 
  11. Ceremonials by Florence & The Machine
  12. Passenger by Lisa Hannigan
  13. Twenty by Pearl Jam
  14. Sky Full Of Holes by Fountains Of Wayne
  15. Virtue by Emmy The Great
  16. The Big Roar by The Joy Formidable
  17. Blood Pressures by The Kills
  18. Velociraptor! by Kasabian 
  19. Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds by Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds
  20. Diamond Mine by King Creosote and Jon Hopkins
  21. Destroyed by Moby
  22. John Wesley Harding by Thea Gilmore
  23. Build A Rocket Boys! by Elbow
  24. Gracious Tide Take Me Home by Lanterns On The Lake 
  25. Close-Up: Volume 3, States Of Being by Suzanne Vega
  26. Bruiser by The Duke Spirit
  27. The King Of Limbs by Radiohead 
  28. Silesia by Jeniferever
  29. Ritual by White Lies
  30. Paradise by Slow Club
  31. Fishin' For Woos by Bowling For Soup
  32. The Fool by Warpaint
  33. Buffalo by The Phoenix Foundation
  34. Metals by Feist
  35. Young Pilgrim by Charlie Simpson
  36. Wasting Light by Foo Fighters

Thea Gilmore - Angels In The Abattoir (December 2011)

The final song from Thea this year for all her lovely Angels is another double: the rather pleasant But Me and a brief take of Auld Lang Syne.

But Me is full of haunting, echoing, spacious vocals set to a simple guitar backing. No write-up or explanation from Thea this time but the message is positive and upbeat in spite of a sedate and measured delivery. A gorgeous love song emerges in the last minute.

Thea's take on Auld Lang Syne is equally beautiful and as expected. A cappella and only one verse but a rare and special performance.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Gathering Stories (Video) by Jónsi

The Sigur Rós front man Jónsi has provided music for We Bought A Zoo. The animated video for the wonderful Gathering Stories, co-written with director Cameron Crowe, is here...

The xx - Open Eyes (demo)

A new song (demo) from The xx. Dark spacious minimalism at its best...

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

2011 Music Chart - November

New albums this month from Kate Bush: the wonderful 50 Words For Snow, and the equally beguiling Florence And The Machine's Ceremonials.
  1. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes
  2. A Creature I Don't Know by Laura Marling
  3. Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will by Mogwai
  4. Slave Ambient by The War On Drugs 
  5. Ashes & Fire by Ryan Adams
  6. Last Night On Earth by Noah And The Whale
  7. Codes and Keys by Death Cab For Cutie
  8. Collapse Into Now by R.E.M.
  9. Belong by The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart
  10. 50 Words For Snow by Kate Bush 
  11. Ceremonials by Florence & The Machine
  12. Passenger by Lisa Hannigan
  13. Sky Full Of Holes by Fountains Of Wayne
  14. Virtue by Emmy The Great
  15. The Big Roar by The Joy Formidable
  16. Blood Pressures by The Kills
  17. Velociraptor! by Kasabian 
  18. Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds by Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds
  19. Diamond Mine by King Creosote and Jon Hopkins
  20. Destroyed by Moby
  21. John Wesley Harding by Thea Gilmore
  22. Build A Rocket Boys! by Elbow
  23. Gracious Tide Take Me Home by Lanterns On The Lake 
  24. Close-Up: Volume 3, States Of Being by Suzanne Vega
  25. Bruiser by The Duke Spirit
  26. The King Of Limbs by Radiohead 
  27. Silesia by Jeniferever
  28. Ritual by White Lies
  29. Paradise by Slow Club
  30. Fishin' For Woos by Bowling For Soup
  31. The Fool by Warpaint
  32. Buffalo by The Phoenix Foundation
  33. Metals by Feist
  34. Young Pilgrim by Charlie Simpson
  35. Wasting Light by Foo Fighters

Thea Gilmore - Angels In The Abattoir (November 2011)

This month's feast of sound from Thea Gilmore to all her lovely Angels In The Abattoir is a cover of Mark Knopfler's Piper To The End. Thea original had a new song ready but 'technical issues' got in the way so we will have to wait for that. Anyway... this appears on the documentary Victor that was broadcast by the BBC earlier this month.

Thea says "It just so happens that Mark is a very good friend of the guy who wrote the novel 'Victor'.. a lovely man called Rick Stroud.. so imagine the sweat on Nigels brow when he realised that his guitar solo would be under the scrutiny of the Knopfler himself! Luckily, word came back that he loved our version.. and he was also pretty busy playing support to.. err, Bob someone at the time so all was fine!"

It's a great version that is true to the original and Nigel is superb.

Also Thea appeared on The Andrew Marr show... very brief but see it here...

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Kate Bush - 50 Words For Snow (Album Review 2011)

There has been much talk recently about the death of the album. Kate Bush herself has spoken about this and like many musicians seems willing to accept the changing face of music. But on the evidence of 50 Words For Snow she is not giving up on the format that has shaped the musical world for generations. And six years is an unusually short amount of time to wait for new material. Ignoring the recent Director’s Cut, an album that failed more than it succeeded but Bush deemed necessary to move forward, 2005’s Ariel is still a fascinating and relevant work. It put the blessed songstress back into our hearts.

As you might expect, 50 Words For Snow is a concept album that should, ideally, be listened to in its entirety while allowing individual songs to stand on their own. This is not a continuous narrative set to music. This is not an opera. This is not Mars Volta or Coheed & Cambria. In spite of a theme to bring it all together, this is not bound by it. Kate Bush lets the album breath; to take on a life of its own.

Opener Snowflake is magnificent and easily the best thing Kate Bush has done for decades. A duet with her son Albert, the song explores the concept of coming into a complex world as unique and beautiful object. A subtle and well-judged production provides a gentle touch so that the drama is never overstated. Everything that Kate Bush does has a complexity that isn’t obvious, especially after a first listen. The music surrounding Lake Tahoe is a great example of this. A gorgeous arrangement. To complete a start worthy of any Kate Bush album, Misty is another masterpiece and a modern adult take on The Snowman. Kate’s love affair with the snow is overtly described in lines such as “he is melting in my hand” and “the sheets are soaking”. Bush’s voice moves from naïve innocent to present day earthy rasp over the thirteen-minute duration, right up to the dramatic finale.

Bringing back the concept of the album, Wild Man sounds odd and disjointed as a single but is perfectly placed on the album as the central piece. Snowed In At Wheeler Street brings in Elton John in what is a deliberately showy and over-the-top performance, from both singers. We would expect (and indeed want) nothing else from either performer and the wonderful dramatic piano and crashing cymbals amplify and augment perfectly right to the end.  This is pure theatre and a wonderful love song filled with emotion.

The title track, featuring the sublime tones of Stephen Fry, is very reminiscent of Lemon Jelly’s Return To Patagonia. The approach of fusing music and spoken word is not a new idea but Bush has enlisted the very best. And it works, up to a point – with Bush spurning Fry onward through the words; absurd and intriguing, the only criticism being the over-complication. Just Fry reading to a simpler backing may have worked better but everyone is allowed their moments of self-indulgence. And Kate Bush never misses the opportunity.

50 Words For Snow closes with the delicate Among Angels – a straightforward, shapeless and short (at a mere six and half minutes…) lament that is arguably the best vocal and piano on the album. Bush is deliberately sparse, controlled and evocative: “I can see angels, standing around you…They shimmer, like mirrors…”. Simply beautiful.

50 Words For Snow is proof that the album is alive and well. Taking a concept and weaving it through over an hour of music to retain a central theme and message is a fine art. The feel of the album is exquisitely judged, with deep resonant piano and voice taking centre stage and forming the body of many of the songs. This is another reinvention to compliment a changing voice and personality. Ariel may have returned Kate Bush to our hearts but 50 Words For Snow will keep her there. For a very long time.
-- CS

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Cassettes Won’t Listen’s ‘Stuck’ - Kinect iPhone Video

Very cool new video for the single Stuck by Cassettes Won't Listen...

Filmed on an iPhone and created using an XBox Kinect.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Little Boots - new single Shake

Here is the new song by Little Boots...

Little Boots - SHAKE by LittleBoots

It's very Goldfrapp/Kylie but cool and stylish.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

2011 Music Chart - October

Great new albums this month from Ryan Adams, Lisa Hannigan, Feist, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds and a late addition: the third Close-Up album from Suzanne Vega. This takes us to over thirty albums this year at Underwurld Music. Fleet Foxes still hold the top spot from Laura Marling and Mogwai.
  1. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes
  2. A Creature I Don't Know by Laura Marling
  3. Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will by Mogwai
  4. Slave Ambient by The War On Drugs 
  5. Ashes & Fire by Ryan Adams
  6. Last Night On Earth by Noah And The Whale
  7. Codes and Keys by Death Cab For Cutie
  8. Collapse Into Now by R.E.M.
  9. Belong by The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart
  10. Passenger by Lisa Hannigan
  11. Sky Full Of Holes by Fountains Of Wayne
  12. Virtue by Emmy The Great
  13. The Big Roar by The Joy Formidable
  14. Velociraptor! by Kasabian 
  15. Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds by Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds
  16. Blood Pressures by The Kills
  17. Diamond Mine by King Creosote and Jon Hopkins
  18. Destroyed by Moby
  19. John Wesley Harding by Thea Gilmore
  20. Build A Rocket Boys! by Elbow
  21. Gracious Tide Take Me Home by Lanterns On The Lake 
  22. Close-Up: Volume 3, States Of Being by Suzanne Vega
  23. Bruiser by The Duke Spirit
  24. The King Of Limbs by Radiohead 
  25. Silesia by Jeniferever
  26. Ritual by White Lies
  27. Paradise by Slow Club
  28. Fishin' For Woos by Bowling For Soup
  29. The Fool by Warpaint
  30. Buffalo by The Phoenix Foundation
  31. Metals by Feist
  32. Young Pilgrim by Charlie Simpson
  33. Wasting Light by Foo Fighters

Ryan Adams - Ashes & Fire (Album Review 2011)

For Ryan Adams, his thirteenth album Ashes & Fire may have never happened. After a short and turbulent initial solo career, in which Adams made the brilliant Gold and Love Is Hell, he joined The Cardinals and continued making great music at a ferocious pace – releasing Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights and 29 in the same year. From there, Adams struggled both personally and musically; fighting substance abuse and coming to terms with Ménière's disease, a hearing disorder that can affect balance. He also had several spats with the media and audiences and became a poet and a writer. So on the face of it, Ashes & Fire is the rehabilitation and recovery album, obviously inspired by the legend of the phoenix. But this is only half the story as Adams describes the songs as ‘trying to paint this picture of somebody not destroyed by change’.

Opener Dirty Rain is the perfect start, deceptively simple and beautifully arranged blues. Adams’ voice, softly spoken, weathered yet youthful, delivers understated power: ‘Last time I was here you were waiting, you ain’t waiting any more…’ begins and ends the second story, taking on new meaning on the second turn. The song builds for the chorus, the glorious piano and keyboards blending with the guitars to take the arrangement from straight blues to jazz and back again. The title track is a grittier blend of vocals and guitars. Adams plays the world-weary singer, his vocals rasping against the pseudo-country arrangement. A short electric solo is the only heavy-handed moment, to be replaced with a more sedate controlled second half. ‘With cool and silvery eyes; and a heart, it was fit for desire…’ is a great line as the chorus builds again.

From this direct opening, Come Home is the big ballad and a thing of utter beauty. Adams’ wife Mandy Moore and son of Stephen, Chris Stills provide sublime backing vocals. ‘Nobody has to cry…to make it seem real. Nobody has to hide the way that they feel’ is simply gorgeous song writing. This is all about the vocals, the stripped back instrumentation never overpowering the central message. This is one of the best songs Adams’ has written and slides neatly into Rocks, a string-laden three minutes of serenity with a delicate falsetto chorus. To complete the first half, Do I Wait is another wonderful song, building to a fantastic guitar solo that leads into the last minute and a choral section.

Chains Of Love is the song on Ashes & Fire that could be five minutes longer. A great pop tune and melody, Adams races through the two and bit minutes, fuelled by acoustic guitars and strings. ‘Everything you are to me is bigger than that spaces…’, sings Adams – this could be about almost anything but sums up where he is and what he wants from music and life, right at the centre of the album. The most interesting and intriguing song here is the wonderfully titled Invisible Riverside. Adams starts with the line ‘Guess I’ll show my hand. Either way I’m losing… I used to have the goods, back when I couldn’t use them’. His lyrics come straight from the heart, even if they have to take a detour via his head. The song drifts towards another great, short and respectful guitar solo before Adams signs off this spiritual love song.

Save Me is probably the weakest moment on Ashes & Fire, simply because it begins by going over old-ground musically and sounding like too obvious a redemption song. That said, it is superbly elegant and fragile. ‘What Am I doing here?’ is the final question. This leads into Kindness, another beautiful arrangement, with perfect backing vocals, piano from Norah Jones and guitar work from ex-Cardinal Neal Casal. The only single from the album Lucky Now is the late highlight – borrowing just a bit from Bright Eyes. The chorus is another gem, as is the guitar work. Adams again ends in reflective mode: ‘I feel like somebody I don’t know. Are we really who we used to be? Am I really who I was?’ – this is enough to keep deep-thinking philosophers occupied for a while.

Ashes & Fire closes with I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say, with Adams’ vocals and Jones’ piano combining perfectly. More great song writing: ‘I tried to find the balance…but got caught up in the cost’. This is a solid, if slightly predictable, final piece that drifts away rather than goes out with a bang. Piano replaces guitar for the final solo.

From the outset, Ashes & Fire is the calmer, warmer (pun intended) and reflective Ryan Adams – leaving New York for Los Angeles, now happily married and personal life stable, his creativity is as plentiful as ever. A great contribution from Norah Jones has to be noted – brilliantly delivering backing vocals and her trademark piano. The sign of a great performer is to surround themselves with solid dependable musicians, while retaining all their own individuality. This is the key to these songs and their immediate accessibility and is the most commercial Ryan Adams record since Demolition. And while Ashes & Fire is a very personal album, Adams keeps his deepest feelings to himself and the listener is drawn in, only to be kept at arms length. Such is the beguiling charm and constant wonder of Ryan Adams.
-- CS

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Q Magazine U2 Achtung Baby covers album

To celebrate 25 years of Q, top artists have collaborated to remake the classic U2 album Achtung Baby which is 20 years old this year. Great to see Nine Inch Nails, Damien Rice, Patti Smith and Jack White heading the talent. Having heard a few of the covers, this sounds like a fantastic version of a great album.

The track listing is:

Nine Inch Nails - Zoo Station
U2 (Jacques Lu Cont Mix) - Even Better Than The Real Thing
Damien Rice - One
Patti Smith - Until The End Of The World
Garbage - Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses
Depeche Mode - So Cruel
Snow Patrol - Mysterious Ways
The Fray - Trying To Throw Your Arms Around The World
Gavin Friday - The Fly
The Killers - Ultraviolet (Light My Way)
Glasvegas - Acrobat
Jack White - Love Is Blindness

The Stone Roses 'Reform'

The Stone Roses have announced this week that are reforming with the original line-up of Ian Brown, John Squire, Mani and Reni. The band announced the reformation at a press conference in London on 18th October and that they would be performing two live shows on June 29-30 2012 at Heaton Park. Tickets are £55. A new record is also a possibility.

As a huge Roses fan, I have mixed feelings about this. As an impressionable teenager I was obsessed (and I don't use this term lightly) with the band and the début album. I even spent most of a family holiday transcribing (the best I could) the lyrics to all the songs. I bought every single and 12 inch (remember them?) and still have a complete collection of everything they ever released on vinyl and later CD. When Second Coming came along I must admit it did not have the same impact but still I was ever a fan and heartbroken when they stopped making music.

So why reform? The money? The chemistry? The fans? Ok so there is much in the mix but more often that not a fan remembers a band for what they were and not what they have become. If The Stone Roses cannot do now what they did half as well back when they ruled the world then what is the point? Plenty of cynics would say money of course but I genuinely believe that what was said at the press conference was a sincere view of events. Something magical happens when the four musicians are in a room together, making music and enjoying life. So says Mani who has quit Primal Scream to 'follow his dream'. I really hope it is a dream. For the fans sake.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Suzanne Vega - Close-Up, Volume 3: States of Being (Album Review 2011)

Close-Up, Volume 3: States of Being is the third in Suzanne Vega’s latest project, to rerecord, reinterpret and revisit her entire back catalogue in four new records, each with different themes. We have already been treated to Love Songs and People & Places so now Vega is tackling her most difficult subject: mental health. Looking through the track list, it is not the most recognisable collection of songs. From her original albums the songs from her eponymous début are Cracking, Straight Lines and Undertow, the title track from Solitude Standing, 50-50 Chance (originally Fifty-Fifty Chance) from the much-ignored Days Of Open Hand; from 99.9F Degrees there is Blood Makes Noise and When Heroes Go Down. My Favourite Plum and Tombstone come from Nine Objects Of Desire, from Songs In Red and Gray there are Penitent, Last Year’s Troubles and Solitaire, Pornographer’s Dream from Beauty & Crime and a new song titled Instant Of The Hour After from the play Carson McCullers Talks About Love which came out this year.

The most radical reworking of any song, not just on this volume but so far across the three albums, is the mighty Blood Makes Noise. This is such an incredible song on the 99.9F Degrees album as it sounds unlike anything Vega had done before (going hand-in-hand with the title track from the same album). But here, the industrial percussion, the fuzzy electronica and Vega’s thick multi-track vocals are all gone – replaced by a simple electric guitar, light drum backing and a more prominent single voice. The song is over thirty seconds longer due to a weird protracted chaotic guitar-driven outro. If there is an obvious criticism it is that all the tension and drama-inducing timing is gone. This is much more forward compared to the withdrawn nature of the original – and the lack of bass takes away much of the twisted energy.

When Heroes Go Down, from the same album, is again devoid of driving percussion and keyboards. Vega’s vocal is also under-produced, solitary and a subtly different arrangement. This is an example of a song that is performed in a completely different way while retaining all of its original tone and feel. Last Year’s Troubles is another example of this. And unlike Blood Makes Noise, Solitaire is largely untouched and what is added, enhances rather than distracts. This volume makes great use of small tweaks to lift ‘ordinary’ and less-known songs. This is a tactic that only fails on Pornographer’s Dream in which, originally, the drama in the second half comes from the music and not the vocal.

Sometimes even a great musician knows to never mess with perfection. This is why the beautiful Penitent is treated with care, removing the percussion and adding a soft string arrangement. One constant trait on Close-Up, Volume 3 is the stark naked vocals, like Vega is no longer hiding behind the songs. Her voice is always the most prominent instrument. Sometimes messing with a good song is exactly what is needed. Solitude Standing always felt like a great song, poorly arranged and badly mixed. But here it is a cold, hard-edged, dark highlight. Vega is superb here and this is a much improved version.

The three earliest songs, from Vegas solo album, have been given a much more modern arrangement, again with the vocals taking centre stage. Undertow has been stripped of the big 80’s stadium drums. Much of Vega’s young charm and wide-eyed passion is now replaced with ageing reflection and control. In contrast to this, Cracking is superb and an instant reminder of how good the début album is, Vega combining singing and narration with deft precision. Straight Lines is the weaker of the three songs when stripped back – the 1985 version is much more eclectic and ethereal.

New song Instant Of The Hour After is difficult to judge. It seems like it is glued to the end of the album as an added extra that does little to impress given all that has come before.

Close-Up, Volume 3: States of Being is another wonderful collection of songs, brought together not so much as therapeutic catharsis but as a musical celebration. It is not as dour and as dark as it could have been. Like previous volumes, some new arrangements are hard to accept. Blood Makes Noise is a brave attempt to do something completely different with a song that is near perfect – any subtle changes and the exercise is pointless. But mostly songs from the fringes have been subjected to modern production that is more obvious the earlier you go back through Vega’s work. Given the compelling nature and quality of these albums, Close-Up: Volume 4 is destined to complete the project and a great quartet.
-- CS

Monday, 10 October 2011

The War On Drugs - Slave Ambient (Album Review 2011)

The War On Drugs is a quartet from the US, formed in 2003 by founding duo Adam Granduciel and Kurt Vile. Several EPs and an impressive debut record later and the band were on the verge of greatness. But by the end of 2008 Kurt Vile had left to become a prolific solo artist. The band now has as many former members as current ones, which makes second album Slave Ambient all the more impressive; that a group of musicians can undergo such upheaval and still make amazing music. Slave Ambient is the result of turning this physical turbulence into musical stability.

Not many bands can embrace traditional guitar-driven Americana and make it sound so fresh and inspiring. Great musicians beg, borrow and steal from their influences and Granduciel has done just that; his voice is part Dylan, part Petty, part Springsteen and musically the band fuses stunning sonic soundscapes (thanks JC for that one!) with melody and orchestral majesty. This is the past launched headlong into the future – smart wide-eyed lyrics meet soaring instrumentation and classic arrangements that suck you into a vortex of melting euphoria.

Slave Ambient begins with Best Night, a perfect tone-setting opener, taking its time to get going as the guitars make way for Granduciel’s prosaic yet lucid vocals. “I believe that I’ve been cursed; been drowned and reimbursed…”, he sings, delivering one of the best lines of the album. A fantastic guitar solo bridges the first two verses that form the first three minutes, only to be followed by more great guitar-work to see the song out its five and a half minute duration. Second song Brothers brings in jangling vibrant guitars from the outset and Granduciel as a curious mix of Dylan and Lloyd Cole (circa 1984’s Perfect Skin). Even at four and half minutes it feels like a fragment of something much bigger. Then, I Was There slows thing down, blending harmonica into the guitar landscape. More great lyrics: “…I thought I had him by the hand; I only had him by the glove…” adorn the song with Granduciel almost slurring the words evocatively.

At the centre of Slave Ambient is a magnificent six-piece epic that combines to create a single solid body of work, starting, in wonderful style, with the energy-fuelled Your Love Is Calling My Name. Driven forward by the pounding drums and more excellent guitars, Granduciel sounds much more focused and determined. This is broken momentarily by a brief psychedelic interlude at three minutes that slowly builds the bass again into more sonic drums. This is the highlight of this core opus as more swirling guitars are added to the outro. A glorious song that leads straight into the instrumental The Animator without drawing breath. This is a beautiful well-judged change of pace and mood; a chance to reflect on what has come before. Then begins another immediate highlight: Come To The City, the best song on Slave Ambient. This builds like U2’s Bad and is just as magnificent. “I’ve been drinking up all the sweet tea… It was made just for me” is another great line. Granduciel is Bono at his very best with bassist Dave Hartley as The Edge and Adam Clayton combined. This builds to a mighty vocal/guitar stadium-filled climax.

The short Come For It fades in to bring another brilliant song: It’s Your Destiny. A wonderful keyboard loop emerges slowly to underpin the song. Here Granduciel is another delicious instrument, his voice floating across the shimmering soup of bass and drums. He lets the music speak in the final minute as the guitars come in. Another fade and City Reprise #12, another stirring instrumental, provides a much needs surface for air. Then the stupendous Baby Missiles completes the show, another fast-paced rock ‘n’ roll master class – throwing everything into the mix with style and substance. A blast of shrill harmonica announces the final outstanding minute complete with whooping vocals and more sublime guitars.

To finish, Original Slave is another great instrumental – all drums and harmonica like a mighty stream train heading into the dark night, fires burning white and spitting coal. Slave Ambient should have probably stopped here, as final song Black Water Falls is a weak swansong given all that has come before. This is somewhat laboured and withdrawn and would have worked better earlier in the album. That said, the guitar-work in the last minute is amongst the best.

Slave Ambient is very nearly a masterpiece; an album that combines structured thoughtful song writing with expertly judged experimentation. Just the right amount of heartfelt lyricism, huge guitars and textured instrumentation create the perfect sound. Echoes of great American voices speak as one through Adam Granduciel who channels the old and the new in equal measure. Comparisons with Dylan and Springsteen aside, he is a unique and talented vocalist with a keen eye for a great lyric. And because of this The War On Drugs sound like a band that have been making great music for decades, and doing it well. A truly brilliant album.
-- CS

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

RIP Bert Jansch

Sad to hear that Bert Jansch has died. A real folk legend and truly influential musician.

Friday, 30 September 2011

2011 Music Chart - September

A very busy month with great new albums from Laura Marling, Kasabian, The War On Drugs and The Duke Spirit. Also new material from Slow Club and the wonderful Lanterns On The Lake. Fleet Foxes still hold the number one spot, but only just as an impressive top ten for the year is taking shape.
  1. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes
  2. A Creature I Don't Know by Laura Marling
  3. Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will by Mogwai
  4. Last Night On Earth by Noah And The Whale
  5. Codes and Keys by Death Cab For Cutie
  6. Collapse Into Now by R.E.M.
  7. Belong by The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart
  8. Slave Ambient by The War On Drugs
  9. Sky Full Of Holes by Fountains Of Wayne
  10. Virtue by Emmy The Great
  11. The Big Roar by The Joy Formidable
  12. Blood Pressures by The Kills
  13. Velociraptor! by Kasabian
  14. Diamond Mine by King Creosote and Jon Hopkins
  15. Destroyed by Moby
  16. John Wesley Harding by Thea Gilmore
  17. Build A Rocket Boys! by Elbow
  18. Gracious Tide Take Me Home by Lanterns On The Lake
  19. Bruiser by The Duke Spirit
  20. The King Of Limbs by Radiohead 
  21. Silesia by Jeniferever
  22. Ritual by White Lies
  23. Paradise by Slow Club
  24. Fishin' For Woos by Bowling For Soup
  25. The Fool by Warpaint
  26. Buffalo by The Phoenix Foundation
  27. Young Pilgrim by Charlie Simpson
  28. Wasting Light by Foo Fighters

Thea Gilmore - Angels In The Abattoir (September 2011)

This month Thea has provided her lovely Angels with five (yes five!) demos from her 2000 album The Lipstick Conspiracies. This is not my favourite Thea Gilmore record; her début Burning Dorothy and follow-up Rules For Jokers are both excellent in comparison. Anyway, the five demos are:
  • Lidocaine Baby
  • Exit Route
  • Forgotten
  • Generation Y
  • Night Driving
Thea says about the demos: "These come with a proviso though.... the next time I see you all, you must must promise not to laugh in my face about the silly Minnie Mouse American accent I'm using on them. I was young, foolish, listening to far too much Joni. Aaaargh.. maybe I've been too hasty! Enjoy the giggle!"

As you might expect these songs are very stripped-down complete with scratchy guitar and raw vocals. In spite of Thea's critical assessment, she sounds fantastic. Young and filled with energy and angst. Forgotten (probably the best song) is complete with a cheesy drum machine. The frantic Generation Y needs a lot of work and it shows greatly the benefits of these early takes to see how the finished articles evolved. Night Driving is not far from the final version.

Some new songs next month please!

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Muppet Show theme (rare extended version) - for Jim Henson

New Noel Gallagher single - AKA What A Life.

Excellent new song from Noel Gallagher (and his High Flying Birds).

R.E.M. 1980-2011

Back in March I wrote a preview article about the new R.E.M. album Collapse Into Now. Enthused after a first listen of new material that is both vibrant and energetic, two important ingredients missing in recent years, I recalled the days when I first discovered the band. The lead track Discoverer is all too aptly named. Compelled and indeed obligated, the article, and subsequent full album review, is filled with optimism for the future and regained love of the past.

I did not grow up with R.E.M. I wish I had. It would have helped me through my formative years and got me interested in those things that fascinate me now as a man on the brink of his fifth decade: literature, art, politics – all frequent subjects of the band’s music, ethos and direction. But what was great about getting into a band ‘in the middle’ was going back as well as forward. Discovering a back catalogue is as wonderful as the anticipation of new albums. Fitting, now and then, that the first R.E.M. album I bought was Out Of Time.

I did not know it then but I was writing about the last R.E.M. album. This week the band announced on their website that they are no more and feel it is time to ‘call it a day’. So was Collapse Into Now, a title that now seems very appropriate and slightly ironic, just a last great hurrah? Michael Stipe spoke earlier in the year about the album making process and said that each record takes everything out of him, every time, to the point of truly not knowing if he (and the band) can ever do it again.

But they have, time after time, through the IRS years; finding form on Life’s Rich Pageant, then Document, into major label success (musically) with Green and (commercially) on Out Of Time and Automatic For The People. Since then it has been a lesson in limits and limitlessness. Monster was just that and saw the band disintegrate, the departure of Bill Berry (‘the heart of the band’) and the music falter. Moments of brilliance on New Adventures In Hi-Fi and Up lead to huge disappointments on Reveal and Around The Sun – the ups and downs of a band ‘learning to run on three legs’.

But there have always been reasons to be an R.E.M. fan. Every album, every song, every note – has something special. A good friend of mine once said, ‘Even a crap R.E.M. album is a good album’. Crass, yes, but you can’t say that about many bands. There are always smart lyrics, neat musical touches and affecting arrangements. Making music this good consistently for fifteen albums takes a life-force to which mere mortals can never aspire.

So R.E.M. is no more. Once the inevitable ‘greatest hits’ box set is released and Buck, Mills and Stipe have had time to sit back and reflect on their achievements and work, what will happen then? A solo career for Michael looks the most likely. Or a career in politics maybe? Likewise Mike and Peter could be the ones to form new bands. I hope they continue to make music in some form, either together or apart. A comeback World Tour in ten years to trawl back through the archives sounds, on the face of it, a ghastly prospect. On the other hand I don’t want them to just ‘fade away’. I have only seen R.E.M. live twice, once at Glastonbury and again at Live 8. I would love to seem them perform again.

Before this article veers into the realms of elevating a band to God-like status and portrays the author as some pathetic doting fan-boy, I will conclude by putting things into perspective. I love music. I love writing about music (even though most of the time I’m not very good at it). And I admire and revere bands that make music that affects me. If I had to pick one band that has had the most impact, and has been such a big part of my life for over two decades, it is R.E.M.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

R.E.M. Break Up and "Call It A Day"


From R.E.M.HQ...

"To our Fans and Friends: As R.E.M., and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished. To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening." R.E.M.

In their own words: The guys share their thoughts on why now.

MIKE

"During our last tour, and while making Collapse Into Now and putting together this greatest hits retrospective, we started asking ourselves, 'what next'? Working through our music and memories from over three decades was a hell of a journey. We realized that these songs seemed to draw a natural line under the last 31 years of our working together.

"We have always been a band in the truest sense of the word. Brothers who truly love, and respect, each other. We feel kind of like pioneers in this--there's no disharmony here, no falling-outs, no lawyers squaring-off. We've made this decision together, amicably and with each other's best interests at heart. The time just feels right."

MICHAEL

"A wise man once said--'the skill in attending a party is knowing when it's time to leave.' We built something extraordinary together. We did this thing. And now we're going to walk away from it.

"I hope our fans realize this wasn't an easy decision; but all things must end, and we wanted to do it right, to do it our way.

"We have to thank all the people who helped us be R.E.M. for these 31 years; our deepest gratitude to those who allowed us to do this. It's been amazing."

PETER

"One of the things that was always so great about being in R.E.M. was the fact that the records and the songs we wrote meant as much to our fans as they did to us. It was, and still is, important to us to do right by you. Being a part of your lives has been an unbelievable gift. Thank you.

"Mike, Michael, Bill, Bertis, and I walk away as great friends. I know I will be seeing them in the future, just as I know I will be seeing everyone who has followed us and supported us through the years. Even if it's only in the vinyl aisle of your local record store, or standing at the back of the club: watching a group of 19 year olds trying to change the world."

Kasabian - Velociraptor! (Album Review 2011)

Back in June 2009 I wrote a review of Kasabian’s last album, West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum. It wasn’t kind. Since then I have listened to the album a few more times and the times have not been kind. It is still a massive disappointing mess in spite of winning best album at the Q and NME awards. In conclusion, I asked for Kasabian to stop going through the motions and do something different, while at the same time, to not stop being Kasabian. Bring back the attitude, the energy, and the (deep breath – and I quote) what-the-hell-are-you-looking-at bravado with a jaunty smile. After a great debut, the band I thought had huge promise and would inevitably fill the gaping hole left by Oasis and The Verve, came off the rails; the songs were non-existent and the dream fell flat. I felt it was an honest and open review written about a band that I truly wanted to be the best in the world but, in fact, were not.

Through all this, I kept the faith. Kasabian were still a great live band and make the best of the songs they have. Tom Meighan is a great frontman, brimming with swagger and self-belief, the eponymous debut is still good, Empire is an excellent follow-up and the band continues to talk and walk the talk and the walk. So with fourth album Velociraptor! the potential for another mess is looming. Thankfully faith is restored and Kasabian return with an album that is not only varied and interesting but packed with equal measures of attitude and, above all, great tunes.

An early highlight is single Days Are Forgotten with its glorious guitar-twang, drum stomp and mad-eyed falsetto choral chanting. Bring in Meighan’s vocals and the blend is complete. An injection of melody arrives with the chorus, adding a smooth sheen over the sharp confrontation of the verses. Lyrically this is nothing more than you would expect (rhyming silhouette with forget is neat) but the whole package works and the energy drives it forward right into the maw of madness and garbled vocals. Excellent.

Acid Turkish Bath (Shelter From The Storm) is a magnificent six minutes of Eastern rhythms, bass that would be well at home on the new Tool album and deliciously evocative vocals. All this after the frantic title track belts through its three minutes. “There’s nothing to it. There’s nothing to it…man”, is the message. The pace is relentless and exhausting. Man Of Simple Pleasures is another high point, with unashamed Gallagher/Ashcroft/Turner lad-rock taking centre stage. This is followed by the electro madness of Switchblade Smiles, a tornado of start-stop swirling vocals, stuttering drums and grinding guitars.

Kasabian are just as effective when the band embrace their own sense of absurdity. Not that they are absurd but a keen ironic eye watches from the safe shadows and often ventures out into the fray to see what is going on. A great example of this is La Fee Verte (The Green Fairy), a Beatles-esque psychedelic trip through a weird life. I Hear Voices has the most elegant 70s synth backdrop as Meighan declares “My soul? You can have it coz it don’t mean shit” before “I’d sell it to the devil for another hit…I wish that you were here”. A simple idea, well executed with just enough retro-kitsch.

Velociraptor! has plenty of surprises. Goodbye Kiss is a pleasant Artic Monkeys ballad filled with intimate observations and heart-warming honesty. This is not what you would expect from Kasabian but it works. Opener Let’s Roll Just Like We Used To adds a bit much into the mix but manages to pull it off. And Neon Noon is a perfectly good closer, gliding through five minutes in ambient controlled style. The only weak spot on Velociraptor! is the woeful Re-wired that fails on many levels. It is one of the only moments of style over substance with all the right ingredients making a huge mess due to under-cooking.

Velociraptor! is not a masterpiece. It is not the best album this year. Nor is it the best Kasabian album. It is (as Meighan puts it) a wonderful jukebox of ideas. In spite of the variation, what makes Velociraptor! work is the consistent focus and control, proof that Kasabian are diverse and eager to challenge themselves from song to song. Great production and a solid mix bring together the ideas. This is, at last, a full-blooded approach that pays off. Melody and stomp happen in equal measure, sound is strong and dense, and what was once one-dimensional now spirals out in many directions. This is an often brilliant and interesting ride.
-- CS

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Laura Marling - A Creature I Don't Know (Album Review 2011)

Laura Marling, once of Noah and The Whale and one time Mystery Jets guest, is riding high on a brace of recent awards: Best British Female at the Brits and Best Solo Artist from The NME. Deservedly so, as last year’s I Speak Because I Can is an outstanding and mesmerising follow-up to Marling’s promising, yet one-dimensional, début. The two years between the first two albums have lifted Marling as a songwriter and a musician, strengthened the relationship with producer Ethan Johns, and helped find that perfect sound. Writing during her tour, Marling rejected many early songs, and delayed the release of third album A Creature I Don’t Know in favour of new and reworked material. The album compliments the previous release wonderfully, with similar themes, ideas and passion.

A Creature I Don’t Know starts with The Muse, a song that proves Marling is not scared of a challenge. This brings together funk guitar and jazz piano to startling effect, with smart vibrant lyrics; at its centre is the line: “Keep those thoughts from sight; follow me into the night; and you can call on me when you need… the light”. It’s not just the words, but what Marling does with her voice, to form a new unique instrument. I Was Just A Card continues the same style, in spite of quiet moments and an auspicious start. More great vocals with Marling showing her range. Don’t Ask Me builds beautifully as the prelude to the mighty Salinas, the latter inspired by the work of John Steinbeck and immediately conjuring vivid images: “My mother was a saviour; of six foot of bad behaviour...”. Like the prelude, this builds slowly to a magnificent vocal climax before starting again in more determined mood, like a completely different song, and concluding with an angelic choir.

The Beast (a recurring character/theme/mood through the album) is one of the best songs Marling has made. Again build-up is the key to this mesmerising fusion of Marling’s vocals and distorted Mogwai-esque electric guitar with a demonic character all of its own, devouring everything else. This is captivating stuff that just keeps building and driving forward to a sudden indeterminate, somewhat unresolved, end. Night After Night blends classical guitar with delicate vocals into a heart-breaking love song about relationship, decay and infidelity. It takes skill and control to sustain this level of focus and engagement over the five minutes duration. The line: “He screams in the night, I scream in the day. We weep in the evening and lie naked and pray” is brilliantly direct. 

The first half of My Friends is probably the weakest point on the album but the second comes alive with Mumford-style guitars and energised strings. Rest In The Bed borrows the vocal melody from Hope In The Air before taking a shape of its own. The coldness in both music and voice is astonishing. A late highlight is the excellent Sophia – another example of control and poise. This quickly becomes about eight songs in one, Marling not settling on any one thought or idea. The gorgeous choral arrangement at the core is just exquisite before a massive transformation into rampant country-rock complete with multi-layered guitars and a liberated vocal delivery. The closer, All My Rage is a great song around a single simple idea to finish the album in great mood and spirit.

A Creature I Don’t Know is the sound of Laura Marling challenging herself, her identity and womanhood. These themes: love, sexuality, religion, strength and anger are represented in every note, every line and every song. She weaves stories and characters around such wonderful musical arrangements and the vocals impishly jump from sultry and reflective to dark and menacing. This is an artist right in the moment, understanding her own talent and skill, making the some of the best music of her life. Marling has taken the essence of Alas I Cannot Swim – the poetry, the intricacy and the intimacy, and fused it with the power, the darkness and the beauty of I Speak Because I Can. This is another work of art.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

P J Harvey wins Mercury Prize for the second time

Congratulations to Polly Jean Harvey for winning the Mercury Prize for the second time, the only artist to do so. Harvey won for her album Let England Shake, a wonderfully conceived and elegantly controlled tribute to a nation and its armed forces. 10 years after her first win and deeply affected by the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, Harvey has created a deeply involved album that burns slowly but lacks cohesive and direct execution. It dances around delicately, almost lacklustre in its approach and delivery, with hard-hitting graphic lyrics intertwined with softened distanced vocals and music. But in creating a channel for silenced voices and lost lives, you can't argue with the sentiment.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

2011 Music Chart - August

Two new albums this month from the ever-brilliant Fountains Of Wayne and Charlie 'Busted then Fightstar' Simpson. Sky Full Of Holes is a joy on each and every listen but sadly Young Pilgrim loses its immediate charm over time.
  1. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes
  2. Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will by Mogwai
  3. Last Night On Earth by Noah And The Whale
  4. Codes and Keys by Death Cab For Cutie
  5. Collapse Into Now by R.E.M.
  6. Belong by The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart
  7. Sky Full Of Holes by Fountains Of Wayne
  8. The Big Roar by The Joy Formidable
  9. Blood Pressures by The Kills
  10. Diamond Mine by King Creosote and Jon Hopkins
  11. Destroyed by Moby
  12. John Wesley Harding by Thea Gilmore
  13. Build A Rocket Boys! by Elbow
  14. Virtue by Emmy The Great
  15. The King Of Limbs by Radiohead 
  16. Silesia by Jeniferever
  17. Ritual by White Lies
  18. Fishin' For Woos by Bowling For Soup
  19. The Fool by Warpaint
  20. Buffalo by The Phoenix Foundation
  21. Young Pilgrim by Charlie Simpson
  22. Wasting Light by Foo Fighters

Monday, 29 August 2011

Thea Gilmore - Angels In The Abattoir (August 2011)

It's been a busy time for Thea Gilmore. So much so that we didn't get a July song at all. She has a good excuse though...a new baby son born a couple of weeks early and requiring some much deserved rest and recuperation. Now at the end of August, Thea wanted to make it up to her devoted Angels by providing two songs but a call to provide for a new Amnesty International collection of Dylan (who else?!) tracks. A studio version of I'll Remember You (previously performed live) will be her contribution.

This month's song is the delicate but striking This Road The King. A simple acoustic backing adorns Thea's piercing vocals. She introduces it as "well, the parenthood thing is looming large in my life right now, as you may expect. One guy about to head to school for the first time and one just born.. It got me thinking about what lies ahead for my kids". This both celebrates and berates the highs and lows of growing up and making your way in the world. And the observations, as always, unfold beautifully.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Charlie Simpson - Young Pilgrim Album Review (2011)

The world has changed a lot since the days of Busted. Remember them? They were the band that brought emo to the UK and paved the way for such wonderful acts as McFly. In the band’s thankfully short career, they were incredibly successful but in 2003, frontman Charlie Simpson grew weary of the trite bouncy commercial pop and formed the band Fightstar, a completely different foray into post-hardcore heavy rock. Four albums later and Fightstar continue to embrace the deeper, more complex sound of a ‘proper’ band while retaining much of the melody-washed song writing that made Busted so engaging. After a brief hiatus Simpson is back with a solo album, and yet another style. He is like the one-man Noah And The Whale. Young Pilgrim, made with Coldplay and Doves producer Danton Supple, is a luscious, if obvious, blend of indie-pop and acoustic rock.

On opener Down Down Down, Simpson plays the ‘jaded former-frontman’ very well and his voice belies his young years. It is hard to tell if the line “We’ve sent people into space without really knowing if they’re ever gonna come back down” is naïve teenage musing or a clever double-meaning. Sadly the wheels come off as a change of pace and transformation into a limp protest song removes all credibility. Not a great start. Parachutes, in spite of being an obvious Coldplay homage (and not just in name), is a better approach. The first signs of Simpson’s talent as a lyricist brings us “So sorry for the pain, sorry for the aches, sorry for the moods I’m swinging” and a great chorus. The jolly country rock and jilted shifting arrangement of All At Once is a much more natural vocal performance complete with falsetto chorus.

Young Pilgrim finds its feet with the wonderful Thorns with more solid vocals, simple drums and a guitar melody. Another good line is “Don’t take this broken heart of mine, it’s the only beat that I have left pulsating through this empty chest”. A great highlight. Cemetery brings together the curious mix of xylophone, double-bass and another cracking chorus while Hold On completes the trilogy, a dreamy harmony-filled pop ballad, in what shapes up to be a strong centrepiece. The same approach continues on I Need A Friend Tonight but is too light and airy, building to a rousing finale that never happens.

In the second half Suburbs drifts by and drifts away to make way for Sundown, a Tom Baxter-esque masterpiece filled with a great arrangement and passionate energy. In the album’s final trilogy, Farmer & His Gun is more great writing: a metaphor for making it on your own and avoiding predators, delivered as gentle country-rock. The sentiment is almost lost in some kooky instrumentation but “It’s best to lose yourself before you ever lose your pride” is the best line on the album. There are great vocals, guitars and well-used harmonica. In an inconsistent turn, If I Lose It crawls through the first two minutes before finally failing to be a huge stadium anthem thanks to flat production. But Riverbanks is a strong (if repetitive) finish with real depth and striking vocals, into a soaring final instrumental.

Even with the pitfalls it is hard to dislike Young Pilgrim. The album has an instant charm and more often than not it draws you in, but the problem is it constantly dazzles you in its headlights. As a song writer Simpson has much to learn and shows great strength but Supple resorts to softening the vocals when a raw production would have more of an impact and there are too many tricks: wordless backing vocals, strings and pounding drums might work for other bands but here there are too many empty spaces. The glue is just as important as the material and things often crack and fall apart. So even though it is far from a triumph this is the most ambitious and unique Charlie Simpson has ever sounded. And that alone should be applauded.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

SIGUR RÓS - INNI

Sigur Rós have announced the release of a live album/film INNI, out in November 2011.
More information here.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Fountains Of Wayne - Sky Full Of Holes (Album Review 2011)

New York quartet Fountains Of Wayne continue to tread a fine line between penning the perfect pop tune and taking an ironic sideways look at life. In a similar way to their Texan compatriots Bowling For Soup, observation and humour is an intrinsic part of their music, and as many bands have proved this can be a frayed tightrope in a hurricane. But thankfully Fountains Of Wayne find the right balance of fun, real-life melancholy and melodrama. Fifth studio album Sky Full of Holes is no exception.

Sky Full Of Holes is packed with brilliant songs. Chris Collingwood is an ever-present vocal genius but the song-writing pairing of Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger is now as strong as ever. Action Hero is the core song that pulls together all elements beautifully, recalling the tale of a family man who dreams of heroic pursuit but is always dragged back by the people around him and the trials and tribulations of real life. This is followed by the sun-kissed pop of A Dip In The Ocean, another cracking pop tune. Vibrant guitars and Collingwood’s ferocious vocals move the song forward at pace.

A wonderful piece of ironic observation is the brilliant A Road Song, which pokes fun at the concept of ‘writing on tour’. Collingwood delivers one of the album’s best lines: “It’s a cliché, but hey… It doesn’t make it so wrong. And in between the stops at the Cracker Barrel and forty movies with Will Ferrell… I need something to occupy my time…”. This is simply gorgeous writing, instrumentation and arrangement. Radio Bar is an obvious ‘big hit’ packed with drums and brass telling the tale of a group of friends on a night out with a wonderful twist ending. This is also a great demonstration of how to use wordless vocals effectively.

Elsewhere the songs are effortlessly varied. The band recall the tale of two hopeless and hapless entrepreneurs Richie and Ruben and then add their own ‘National Express’ (The Divine Comedy) with Acela, a tribute to the Amtrack express train that runs through New York, in the style of Oasis. The whole thing works brilliantly. In complete contrast, the big ballad Hate To See You Like This is a sympathetic yet light-hearted take on depression and closer Cemetery Guns also shows the more serious side of the band. It is a sad lament and tribute of our times.

Fountains Of Wayne have always been able to crank out a pop song but it is the less commercial songs that best show the band’s talents. Their biggest hit, 2003’s Stacy’s Mom from Welcome Interstate Managers, is a perfect example of when it all comes together but there is more to the band than a couple of hit singles. Sky Full Of Holes may not have these (Radio Bar could be the obvious exception) but it is the most consistent and solid album since the brilliant Utopia Parkway in 1999 and considerably better than the charming yet forgettable Traffic And Weather four years ago. This is an excellent return.
-- CS
Dedicated to the memory of A.M.S. RIP.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

2011 Music Chart - July

Only two new albums this month: Silesia by Jeniferever and the Mercury Prize nominated Diamond Mine by King Creosote and Jon Hopkins. Number one is still the glorious Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes, narrowing beating Mogwai and Noah and The Whale. And a late entry from The Kills.
  1. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes
  2. Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will by Mogwai
  3. Last Night On Earth by Noah And The Whale
  4. Codes and Keys by Death Cab For Cutie
  5. Collapse Into Now by R.E.M.
  6. Belong by The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart
  7. The Big Roar by The Joy Formidable
  8. Diamond Mine by King Creosote and Jon Hopkins
  9. Destroyed by Moby
  10. John Wesley Harding by Thea Gilmore
  11. Build A Rocket Boys! by Elbow
  12. Blood Pressures by The Kills
  13. Virtue by Emmy The Great
  14. Silesia by Jeniferever
  15. Ritual by White Lies
  16. Fishin' For Woos by Bowling For Soup
  17. The Fool by Warpaint
  18. Buffalo by The Phoenix Foundation
  19. Wasting Light by Foo Fighters
  20. The King Of Limbs by Radiohead

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Mercury Prize 2011

It is time for the Mercury Prize 2011. The shortlist is...
  • Adele – 21
  • Anna Calvi – Anna Calvi
  • Elbow – Build a Rocket Boys!
  • Everything Everything – Man Alive
  • Ghostpoet – Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam
  • Gwilym Simcock – Good Days at Schloss Elmau
  • James Blake – James Blake
  • Katy B – On a Mission
  • King Creosote and Jon Hopkins – Diamond Mine
  • Metronomy – The English Riviera
  • PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
  • Tinie Tempah – Disc-Overy
A very uninspiring list for a number of reasons. The commercial favourite Adele is nominated for 21 - half a good album. The songs that are good are very good and the rest is bland and more style over substance. Two great bands: Elbow and Radiohead are on the shortlist with albums that are not as good as their previous releases. Elbow will have to do a lot to beat The Seldom Seen Kid and In Rainbows didn't win for Radiohead so King Of Limbs certainly won't.

The big surprise is PJ Harvey. I was so disappointed with the shapeless lacklustre and downright dull Let England Shake. One thing I would say at this point is that I am willing to give the album another listen and I am equally willing to eat my words if I feel any different but even on repeat listens since its release, I have failed to grasp the concept and the energy.

This might be a good year for a non-pop act to win but the field is weak in that area too. Probably not Gwilym Simcock's Good Days At Schloss Elmau - even if jazz is your thing. The less said about Tine Tempah the better and Ghostpoet is just a bit random and 'out there' even for hardcore hip-hop fans.

The alternate to these is James Blake and Katy B - both solid albums but nothing special. Likewise Anna Calvi and Everything Everything are not quite there yet. If this year stays with the mainstream then this may very well be the year for Metronomy - The English Riviera is an unusual delight, if not for everyone.

My favourite on the list is definitely King Creosote and Jon Hopkins. Diamond Mine is delicate and beautiful. These albums tend not to win but we can hope.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

2011 Music Chart - June

New albums for June from Moby and Emmy The Great. Moby is back with yet another extraordinary record, Destroyed, filled with eclectic electro-goth/pop and soaring instrumentals. Rising star Emmy The Great released her second album this month, Virtue, to build on a promising début.
  1. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes
  2. Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will by Mogwai
  3. Last Night On Earth by Noah And The Whale
  4. Codes and Keys by Death Cab For Cutie
  5. Collapse Into Now by R.E.M.
  6. Belong by The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart
  7. The Big Roar by The Joy Formidable
  8. Destroyed by Moby
  9. John Wesley Harding by Thea Gilmore
  10. Build A Rocket Boys! by Elbow
  11. Virtue by Emmy The Great
  12. Ritual by White Lies
  13. Fishin' For Woos by Bowling For Soup
  14. The Fool by Warpaint
  15. Buffalo by The Phoenix Foundation
  16. Wasting Light by Foo Fighters
  17. The King Of Limbs by Radiohead

Thea Gilmore - Angels In The Abattoir (June 2011)

A really interesting song this month, recorded by Thea while on her way to Glastonbury...

I will let Thea introduce the song:

"We're travelling to Glastonbury festival to play John Wesley Harding on the acoustic stage.. I have very deliberately avoided all TV footage of the festival so far because its been raining solidly for three days and I don't want to know the quagmire that we're about to drive into.

I am at this point, 35 weeks pregnant and the size of a house, literally, a good sized, 4 bedroom, 2 bathroom family home.. it is hot and humid and grey and my fuzzy brain is trying to process everything that I need to think about for the performance that night. We've left all motorways and major roads behind and we're winding our way through English, pastoral, summer greenness.

And then two things happen, the more mundane of them being that I realize I desperately need to use the bathroom..  and the sun comes out..

So here's what we do, we stop.. in a tiny lane. I make myself more.. ahem... comfortable.. and then, just for fun, we get the guitar out and record..."

The song is 'Give Me A Place To Stand', a sad, melancholy ballad that doesn't quite sum up the glorious English summer festival mood but instead adds a sense of perspective on the world.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Glastonbury 2001 - U2 and Coldplay: The Rights and The Wrongs

The big headliners at this year’s Glastonbury festival U2 and Coldplay have now performed and as predicted they have both satisfied and divided audiences. But it was U2 that came out on top in the battle of bands no one likes admitting they like.

Glastonbury is all about the right approach. A Glastonbury set is a greatest hits showcase, the best of the back catalogue and the cream of your musical achievement. This immediately put U2 ahead as they have more to draw upon. So why, in their Friday night headline set, did they pad the end with weak recent-era single like Vertigo, Elevation and worse Get On Your Boots? A festival set has to have momentum and this slowed things to a crawl.

It all started so well with five of the best from Achtung Baby then Where The Streets Have No Name (always good to throw in an obvious ‘encore’ song early on) and I Will Follow. Bono threw in some odd cover snippets which aren’t worth mentioning and finished the main set with Sunday Bloody Sunday, Bad (a personal favourite) and Pride. But the encore was a wasted opportunity just as the set was building momentum again. Blues legend and one-time U2 collaborator B.B. King was at the festival this year and the stage was set for When Love Comes To Town. Alas it never happened. And the encore was a rousing With Or Without You followed by the very dull Moment Of Surrender (another recent song) and a spirited Out of Control from debut album Boy.


So a hits-packed set from U2 with nothing new and only two from the new album. Complete with a live feed from the International Space Station, this was a solid set (in spite of falling flat) from a band trying to hold on to their prime. And just about succeeding). Bono is still an enigmatic showman and The Edge is a supreme guitarist.

Pretenders to the U2 throne, Coldplay, have much more to prove (and judging by the Saturday night set, a lot to learn). Five new songs from Chris Martin and the boys – not new as in from the latest album, but new as in not yet released. He even apologised to the masses as if they had some obligation to plug their new album. “One Day they’ll be your favourites”, Martin declared optimistically. And they opened with a brand new song. Yes most of the crowd had probably heard it before but still, it all comes back to momentum. This was followed by the mighty Yellow and probably the smartest move of the night (again, get your obvious encore song in early – and it doesn’t get much bigger that this). As In My Place started, it looked as if everything was back on track after the opening stumble but the set ambled along littered with new songs, the disjointed early single Shiver and the best from Viva La Vida up against the brilliance of A Rush Of Blood To The Head. X&Y was haplessly neglected; the album is filled with songs that are just made for big crowds so when only include Fix You, for the encore. They had to.

But the final nail in the Coldplay coffin was during Us Against The World – the best of the new songs – Martin messed up. Instead of bimbling on and getting through it (no one would have noticed) he stopped the song and started again. Genuine blunder or misjudged publicity stunt? He then made a joke about the set being an open rehearsal and “let’s forget this is a festival and we’re supposed to be professional headliners”. What happened to respect and taking this seriously? If you can’t get through new songs live then don’t attempt them, especially if you’re top billing on Saturday at Glastonbury. It was embarrassing and disrespectful. Then they closed with new single Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall that is still a terrible song.

This was a night to forget from Coldplay and a fitting Glastonbury swansong for U2.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Clarence Clemons RIP

The legendary saxophonist and E Street Band stalwart Clarence Clemons has died, aged 69.

Bruce Springsteen posted on the band's website:

"His loss is immeasurable and we are honored and thankful to have known him and had the opportunity to stand beside him for nearly 40 years. He was my great friend, my partner, and with Clarence at my side, my band and I were able to tell a story far deeper than those simply contained in our music. His life, his memory, and his love will live on in that story and in our band."

RIP.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

New Subways song - It's A Party

Get the new song from The Subways here:


Fountains of Wayne - new album and Rolling Stone interview

Fountains of Wayne talk about the new album Sky Full Of Holes to Rolling Stone.

Read it here.

The National video contest

The National and video games company Valve have launched a new competition: to make a video for Exile Vilify, the song The National provided for the game Portal 2.

You can hear Exile Vilify here:

Thursday, 16 June 2011

R.E.M. ÜBerlin video

The new video for ÜBerlin by R.E.M.

Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood and featuring Aaron Johnson.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Thea Gilmore - John Wesley Harding (Album Review 2011)

Not every musician has the audacity to cover Bob Dylan songs but Thea Gilmore has gone a step further by covering a whole album. And that album is the much-praised John Wesley Harding. The record that brought the world the wonderful All Along The Watchtower (a year after its release this would be covered by Jimi Hendrix in what remains one of the best cover versions of all time) was the start of Dylan’s journey into country from his early folk roots. This crossover of musical styles and influences is perfect material for Gilmore.

Dylan said of John Wesley Harding that he actually wanted to record it with a full band. The reality was that it was almost a solo recording. Much of the original is just Dylan, who provides harmonica, piano and guitar as well as vocals, and a simple drum/bass accompaniment. So the final result was much more stripped down than he wanted. In response to this Gilmore has mostly shied away from the quiet intimate arrangement and approaches the whole project full-blooded and head-on.  In addition to Gilmore’s crisp and direct vocals, the guitar-work from Robbie McIntosh is excellent. The effect is an astonishing tribute through reinvention.

I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine is the song that started this all; Thea having recorded it before as part of her Songs From The Gutter covers album. Apparently Bruce Springsteen described it was one of the great Dylan covers. That aside, it doesn’t disappoint. Likewise the magnificent All Along The Watchtower captures the twisted darkness perfectly with Gilmore’s delicate vocals riding the turbulent production. To complete the best trio on the album, The Ballad Of Frankie Lee And Judas Priest is brilliant poetry from start to finish.

Elsewhere the reinvention is more obvious. The simple piano-led Dear Landlord is given a slight jazz treatment within the blues melody. Drifter’s Escape is a great modern ‘soft-rock’ take, all fuzzy guitars and pounding drums. As is the equally frantic harmonica stomp of The Wicked Messenger, also faster and more direct than the original, and As I Went Out One Morning has all of the same vocal arrangement with added guitar injection. But where required, Gilmore is closer to Dylan’s material. I Pity The Poor Immigrant still packs a political punch and Gilmore delivers the message as it was intended. Closer I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight is a lighter note to finish.

With her version of John Wesley Harding Thea Gilmore has managed to achieve two things: retain the spirit of Bob Dylan’s original and smooth out all the rough edges. The strength of the original is the terrifyingly acute song writing and Gilmore goes to great lengths to preserve the essence of the narrative – each song is a story and each story delivers vibrant characters from a long lost age. Naturally there would be many who will say that this is the easy option for Gilmore and that attempting to cover a seminal work is both foolish and divisive, but this was always a double-edged sword. Hopefully people will take this for what it is: to coincide with Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday, a celebration of the life of one of the greatest songwriters this world has ever produced.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Kaiser Chiefs 'DIY' new Album

Kaiser Chiefs have come up with an interesting new concept for their latest album: fans can pick 10 songs from 20, design their own artwork and then download the album. The twist is that you can get £1 for each copy of your album that you sell. Ok so this is taking album marketing in a new direction but there is one flaw to this. Fans of the band are going to want all the songs so they will create two albums of 10 songs and download them both. So why would anyone want a 'random' selection of 10 songs, especially in this age of the 'shuffle' mp3 player? The only way this could work is if fans buy an album from another fan and then make their own from the 10 songs that they don't have, and so on. That could work, and the band gives a pound for each one 'passed-on'. Great idea, not sure it will catch on.

The website is really well put together. And if you're a fan, it's worth checking out.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Mark Kermode Midnight Cowboy harmonica session

Great 'behind the scenes' video of Mark practising for his show-piece with the London Philharmonic: the harmonica part of theme from the movie Midnight Cowboy.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

2011 Music Chart - May

Three amazing albums this month in what is shaping up to be a great first half of the year. Thea Gilmore's version of Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding is a complete joy. Any year that brings a new album (Codes and Keys) from Death Cab For Cutie is cause for celebration and Fleet Foxes return with a magnificent follow-up to their début, Helplessness Blues. Also this month is Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, the new album from Beastie Boys. Not their best but great to hear them still going strong.
  1. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes
  2. Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will by Mogwai
  3. Last Night On Earth by Noah And The Whale
  4. Codes and Keys by Death Cab For Cutie
  5. Collapse Into Now by R.E.M.
  6. Belong by The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart
  7. The Big Roar by The Joy Formidable
  8. John Wesley Harding by Thea Gilmore
  9. Build A Rocket Boys! by Elbow
  10. Ritual by White Lies
  11. Fishin' For Woos by Bowling For Soup
  12. The Fool by Warpaint
  13. Wasting Light by Foo Fighters
  14. The King Of Limbs by Radiohead
  15. Buffalo by The Phoenix Foundation

Thea Gilmore - Angels In The Abattoir (May 2011)

This month's song from Thea Gilmore to all her lovely Angels is just a bit special. A live recording of I'll Remember You taken from the Bob Dylan birthday show at Union Chapel on May 24th. This coincides with the release of her new album: Dylan's John Wesley Harding.

Here's what Thea said about the show...

"The Dylan show worked a treat at Union Chapel... it was a really atmospheric night.. appropriate churchy-ness and gothic lighting. A great band and a fabulous crowd.. so for all those of you who were there, thankyou for making it so special."

Thea dedicates the song to a dear departed Angel; a lovely gesture.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues (Album Review 2011)

This is the 500th post for the current incarnation of my music blog. Fitting that it is a review of a great new album. Enjoy...

Originally from Seattle but now based in Portland, American six-piece Fleet Foxes have risen to prominence since 2008. The band is unique among their contemporaries in promoting vocals as much as music as part of their multi-layered intricate folk sound. The band’s eponymous début shows this to its full potential but now the follow-up, Helplessness Blues, moves the band and their music up a notch – the songcraft, the depth of production and the vocals all feel so much more powerful. And it is a joy from start to finish.

The immediate highlights of Helplessness Blues are the albums three longest songs. The Plains/Bitter Dancer has a slow-burning choral build-up before adding guitars, the dark brooding atmosphere enhanced by a flute arrangement. The combination of vocals and instrumentation is amongst the best on the album. This is followed by the title track with another great vocal melody fuelled by powerful guitar-work. A song, at the centre of the running theme, sums up the feelings of being overwhelmed by the world and wanting to fit in, while understanding it and almost being comfortable about the situation. With two minutes to go it transforms, adding rare electric guitars to lament about a more simple life and gorgeous song writing. The third of these songs is the eight-minute odyssey The Shrine/An Argument.  The opening lyrics: “I went down among the dust and pollen; to the old stone fountain in the morning after dawn” immediately set the scene in what is a vocal tour-de-force for front man Robin Pecknold. The line “Sunlight over me no matter what I do…” is sung with such power and control – a feat not heard anywhere else on the album. Again, as the double-named title suggests, a transformation brings in crashing drums, guitars and more stunning vocals. Halfway and the song quietens into ambience and more talk of orchards and apples before a beautiful interlude is replaced by a manic squealing horn-section. An odd yet beguiling progression through a wonderful story.

Elsewhere, Helplessness Blues is filled with more quality. Sim Sala Bim is more vivid imagery and superb vocals followed by astonishing guitar-work to end. Battery Kinzie is a great pop single with echoes of Simon & Garfunkel recalling a strange dream. Likewise Lorelai is a jolly upbeat guitar-led love song brimming with lyrical brilliance: “I was old news to you then…” and “I still see your face when I try to sleep”. Only the scientifically incorrect whimsical musings of Blue Spotted Tail is a low point but even this has an engaging naïve charm. And closer Grown Ocean combines Phil Spector production with Sigur Ros ‘vocals as instruments’ perfection to create a final masterpiece. The last forty seconds of a cappella is a fitting end to a wonderful album.

Fleet Foxes consistently pull the listener further into their own unique world that, while on the surface sounds alien and grounded in folklore, is more than relevant and modern. In this ever-changing technological world, Helplessness Blues manages to remain organic and real. As a progression from the band’s début, this second album manages to take all the elements of their original, captivating sound and inject a new creative edge. And the effect is an astonishing leap forward thanks to a greater depth of song writing, engaging storytelling and superbly crafted composition. By no means flawless, this is an album of beguiling charm and intimacy that reaches near-perfection.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Ivor Novello Awards 2011

The 2011 Ivor Novello Awards winners have been announced. For the first time in years I don't agree with any of the winners. I would put so many more great musicians and many more great songs ahead of Plan B, Tinie Tempah, Paul Rodgers and Muse this year. Even Becoming A Jackal by Villagers, winner of Best Song, Musically and Lyrically, lacks coherent melody and structure.

The full list of winners is:

PRS for Music Most Performed Work
Song: She Said
Written by: Eric Appapoulay/Richard Cassell/Benjamin Drew/Tom Wright-Goss
Performed by: Plan B
Published in the UK by: Sony/ATV Music Publishing/Universal Music Publishing

Best Original Video Game Score
Game: Napoleon: Total War
Composed by: Richard Beddow/Richard Birdsall/Ian Livingstone
Developer: The Creative Assembly
Published in the UK by: SEGA

Best Contemporary Song
Song: Pass Out
Written by: Timothy McKenzie/Patrick Okogwu/Marc Williams
Performed by: Tinie Tempah
Published in the UK by: EMI Music Publishing/Stellar Songs Ltd

Best Television Soundtrack
Broadcast: Any Human Heart
Composed by: Dan Jones
Published in the UK by: Faber Music Ltd/Universal Music Publishing

The Ivors Inspiration Award
Dizzee Rascal

The Ivors Classical Music Award
Michael Nyman

Album Award
Album: The Defamation of Strickland Banks
Written by: Benjamin Drew
Performed by: Plan B
Published in the UK by: Universal Music Publishing

Best Original Film Score
Film: How To Train Your Dragon
Composed by: John Powell
Published in the UK by: BMG Chrysalis

PRS for Music Outstanding Contribution to British Music
Paul Rodgers

Best Song Musically & Lyrically
Song: Becoming a Jackal
Written by: Conor O'Brien
Performed by: Villagers
Published in the UK by: Domino Publishing Company

International Achievement
Matthew Bellamy, Dominic Howard & Christopher Wolstenholme aka Muse

Outstanding Song Collection
Steve Winwood

Songwriter of the Year
Benjamin Drew aka Plan B

PRS for Music Special International Award
Stephen Sondheim