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.