Sunday, 30 September 2012

The xx - Coexist (Album Review 2012)

In 2010, the xx's début album xx won the Mercury Prize, beating Biffy Clyro, Dizzee Rascal, Foals, Laura Marling, Mumford & Sons and Paul Weller. This helped bring the band, their lo-fi sparse electronic sound, and the album, to a wider audience. Now as a three-piece of Romy Madley-Croft, Oliver Sim and Jamie Smith, the inevitable difficult follow-up Coexist is not so much progress as continuation of a working format. The difference this time is that Croft and Sim, who share vocal duties, have brought their own personal lives and memories into the song writing, while Smith provides the light touches. This makes Coexist a collection of melancholic and beautiful love songs.

Opener Angels has Madley-Croft repeating "Being as in love with you as I am" over Smith's delicate keys while Chained is a Sim-lead duet, centred on the line "We used be closer than this". Vocally the two singers intertwine, often singing different threads of the same story, providing altering perspectives and views. Gothic guitars and stark drums are added for Sim's Fiction but the early highlight is the wonderful Try with its fragile arrangement and fragmented ideas, two-part vocal harmonies and empty spaces. The backdrop for Reunion is echoing steel-drums; a song in two movements, building in the second half and concluding the story of missed opportunity and loss.

Sunset is another fine moment, like a distant phone conversation between two storytellers, or the inner thoughts as they read each other's letters, and Missing continues this approach with added drama - a neat touch is how the roles of Sim and Madley-Croft switch to compliment each other. The vibrant, yet downbeat, Tides completes this impressive trilogy and Coexist's best ten minutes. This is followed by the album's most beautiful vocal performance, Unfold, the words framed with more great guitar work and subtle production from Smith.

At five minutes, Swept Away is a hugely ambitious attempt to break away from the strict formula, creating what becomes a late high point. Two gorgeous guitar/piano instrumentals break the song into three parts. "I'm here...and I'll always be..." is another vocal masterpiece from Madley-Croft while Sim delivers "Hide away, I hide away with you...I let the world just slip away, and I'm left with you...". At the centre of the song is more love-letter interplay between the two. Closer Our Song is the only time on Coexist when the two singers are together for the entire vocal, which seems like a fitting ending.

Coexist is unlikely to make an immediate impact; it is one of those albums that needs time and repeat listens to appreciate. The xx don't go for big arrangements and layers of guitars, riffs and epic moments, and there are no obvious 'singles' (and why should there be in a world in which this is no longer important). The power of the music is in the use of space and control and Smith handles the production with deft and imaginative precision. As vocalists, Madley-Croft in particular has grown, and together the band's timing and cohesion is improved. Everything just sounds more focused and tightly constructed, embracing the minimalism ever further. Coexist is an album of character and characters, heartbreak and hope, and more importantly, being together.
-- CS

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Album Reviews (The Killers, Mumford & Sons and The Raveonettes)

The Killers - Battle Born

After a brief hiatus following years of touring, The Killers are now continuing their quest for world domination. Fourth album Battle Born is both hugely enjoyable and massively frustrating; a real hotch-potch of ideas, styles and pace produced mainly by Brendan O'Brien and Steve Lillywhite. A few songs are co-written by Daniel Lanois (best known as the producer of U2's The Joshua Tree) and Travis's Fran Healy and as an album it all holds together with moments of brilliance everywhere. However, each song doesn't always stick to a tried and tested plan and they veer off course regularly, leading to the aforementioned frustration - opener Flesh and Bone is the best example of this. Definite highlights include the single Runaways (the only song produced by both O'Brien and Lillywhite, with Damien Taylor) pulling in bits of The Who and Springsteen - a tale of love, loss and a man fighting against the odds to keep a family together ("We used to laugh now we only fight" and "I come home after they go to sleep; like a stumbling ghost I haunt these walls..."). This is one of the redeeming parts of Battle Born - the outright honesty and intimate storytelling of everyday people, even though lyrically, this is not the band's best work. Brandon Flowers is excellent throughout, fully committed and full-blooded and only The Rising Tide is a badly judged four minutes. A Matter Of Time brings the past and the present together for another high point and more musical ideas than most albums have in their entire running time, and Miss Atomic Bomb is equally compelling, if a little too clever for its own good. Here With Me is the big open-hearted ballad with the teenage-poet chorus: "I don't want your picture on my cellphone..." and Heart Of A Girl builds to a gloriously pleasant finale. The last three songs on Battle Born form a strong finale, from the short pop-punk of From Here On Out, through the smooth electronic vibes of Be Still, to the bombastic epic closing title track. Always interesting and often baffling, Battle Born is not The Killers at their most consistent but it is certainly their most ambitious album to date.

Mumford & Sons - Babel

Mumford & Sons have proved that it doesn't have to be a 'difficult second album'. Following their superb début Sigh No More, the band release Babel, after three years of tours, television appearances and helping make Laura Marling's I Speak Because I Can a massive success. And this is now Mumford & Sons at the top of their game - building their sound while keeping its soul, and improving each and every part. The result is incredible. Arguably Sigh No More has better songs but with stand-out moments like the beautiful Holland Road, mighty stadium-epic Lover Of The Light (easily the album's finest song and destined to be a stadium centre piece) and the dark, powerful Broken Crown, this eclipses anything that has come before, simply through the musicianship and execution. Every moment is well-judged, perfectly delivered and brimming with quality. Even the delicate Below My Feet manages to do a lot with very little in five minutes, even at the three-minute mark when the music builds to a banjo/vocal climax. Delicious harmonies are added when required but it's the fantastic voice of Marcus Mumford leading the music forward. Babel's longest song Ghosts That We Knew is also perfectly arranged, slow and methodical for the most part and never resorting to a huge swathe of instrumentation. And Hopeless Wanderer proves that prog-folk is possible as it bounces from slow to fast with relentless energy. Ultimately, even though it sticks to tried-and-tested formula, Babel is a triumph and should launch Mumford & Sons further into people's hearts and minds.

The Raveonettes - Observator

Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo are one of music's odd couples. Ever since the release of début EP Whip It On, with lead track Attack Of The Ghost Riders, they have made great music - a compelling blend of 60s shimmering harmonies and Jesus And Mary Chain meets My Bloody Valentine guitars. Previous album Raven In The Grave, while inconsistent, is much more ambitious than their early work and now Observator shows that The Raveonettes have even more variation, as hinted by 2007's Lust Lust Lust. The main problem with this album is how annoyingly short it is, nine songs at just over half an hour. But this is quality over quantity and every song earns its place. The early highlight is Observations, an odd Gothic take on Gimme Shelter with dramatic piano, fuzzy guitars and Wagner's super-slick vocals. The duo recorded the album at the famous Sunset Sound in LA and the album oozes the effects of the oppressive California heat, the myriad of Venice Beach characters and the ghosts of the past. The Enemy, with Foo's delicious vocals taking the lead, is also impressive, while Sinking With The Sun is a super-fast guitar-drum duet with a cool chorus, and She Owns the Streets is brilliant storytelling. Observator ends impressively: Downtown is a great mix of distortion and pop melody, You Hit Me (I'm Down) sums up the mood of the album while turning the 'drug' theme on its head, and Till the End is a fine, if a little rushed, pop finish. More great music from the Danish duo.
-- CS

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Richard Hawley and Lisa Hannigan (Portsmouth Pyramids, 18/09/12)

I don't often write reviews of gigs, mainly because I don't go to many - something I hope to change, but this one was very special. For me it was a no-brainer; a double-header at a local 'small' venue featuring two musicians I really wanted to see live. Here it is...

Tuesday night in Southsea, Portsmouth, and the sun was setting on the harbour as an Isle Of Wight ferry made its way across the waters of this historic waterway. I arrived early and after a brief walk along the sea front, made my way into the short queue at the Pyramids for Lisa Hannigan and Richard Hawley.

I was in the venue at 7:35 and immediately appreciated the size of the place. This was my first time at the Pyramids and it felt more like being at one of the smaller stages at a festival. I had a quick wander around, walked up to the stage and checked out the guitars and amps on display. At the front you could almost touch them. Most people were flocking in the bar areas at the back and to one side and I found myself standing about six feet from the stage with only a single line of hardened fans at the front, arms resting on the barrier between floor and stage. And at 7:55, the lights dimmed and Lisa Hannigan, guitar in hand, walked alone onto the stage. She introduced herself and started her first song.

This seemed to take everyone else by surprise. But not me. It sounds corny but it was as if she was singing just for me, looking right at me, singing just for me. The ground could have swallowed me up and I wouldn't have cared. The lack of crowd around me, as I stood motionless, listening to this wonderful voice and guitar, made it feel like I was the only person in the room.

Safe to say, Hannigan's set was mesmerising. She was joined by her band (including guitarist, backing singer John Smith) for the remaining set - a short 35 minutes or so but packed with brilliance. The magnificent Knots was a highlight for me, as was the beautiful O Sleep which captivated everyone. Anyone who can rock out with a Ukulele is greatness incarnate. Thankfully the performance drew people from the bars and towards the stage - so by the time Lisa and her two male companions gave a heartfelt and honest rendition of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down in honour of the late Levon Helm (The Band), gathered together around a single microphone, everyone was captivated.

So Lisa Hannigan walked off stage to respectful applause and shouts of 'more' (not just from me) and a sense of bewilderment. A guy next to me told me when he booked tickets he had to look her up on YouTube because he hadn't heard of her. I smiled and said 'I was only here for her'. This was greeted with raised eyebrows. I went on to explain that I probably wouldn't have got a ticket if it wasn't for such a great support act. I think most people waiting for Richard Hawley and his band to take to the stage felt the same way, even if they didn't before.

I decided to stay in the same spot for the main man. After twenty minutes of watching roadies going through final sound checks, tuning and arranging a plethora of guitars, and generally rushing about, Richard Hawley and band took to the stage to rapturous applause and whooping. Dressed in jeans and a tight leather jacket, with trademark quiff, he is an instantly recognisable and distinctive 'front man'. After a 'good evening', they immediately launched into She Brings The Sunlight, the opening song from his now Mercury nominated album Standing At The Sky's Edge.

Naturally the album dominated the set list and my trepidations about how the songs would be delivered (and received) live were instantly settled. It was blistering stuff - the echoing guitars, pounding drums and Hawley's vocals shaking my soul to the core. Leave Your Body Behind You, Down In The Woods, Standing At The Sky's Edge, Before and new single Seek It were all superb. Hawley's banter with the crowd was engaging, sweary and gloriously charming. He lambasted the mp3 generation ("Anyone handing over a tenner and getting nothing needs their head looking at" - or words to that effect) and then tried - presumably in jest - to arrange an after-show party under Southsea Pier, and criticising someone for saying they would bring a Parker jacket, after someone else said "box of wine". There was a good vibe between Hawley, the audience and his band as he talked about the lead guitarist's new trousers. Back to the music, old favourite Tonight The Streets Are Ours and the more recent Open Up Your Door and Soldier On were equally well received. His genuine and respectful thanks to the crowd nearly fell flat - "Thanks for choosing to come and see us. It's tough out there", he declared which got the response: "It's Portsmouth" from one wise-cracking local. Comedy aside, his thanks were well received and it felt honest and humbling. The applause at the end of the set was the loudest I've heard.

This continued for what seemed like hours before Hawley and his band (who were superb all night) returned for one last song, appropriately The Ocean. This was a huge version ending in a massive feedback-fuelled finale of teeth-rattling guitars and bass. A great end to a great night.
- CS

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Aimee Mann - Charmer Video

Cool video and song. Great idea.

Ben Folds Five - Do It Anyway (with the cast of Fraggle Rock)

Music Reviews (Aimee Mann, Ben Folds Five, Band of Horses)

Aimee Mann - Charmer

It's been a while since Aimee Mann has set the musical world alight. Her third album Bachelor No. 2 (Or The Last Remains Of The Dodo) remains Mann's most interesting and musically astute album, followed by her wonderful début Whatever, back in the early nineteen nineties, and later the brilliant Magnolia soundtrack. The world has changed and Mann has changed with it. Gone are the folky acoustic overtones, that lead Bob Dylan to declare 4th Of July one of the best songs ever written, and in come the fuzzy pop synths and electric guitars. This is evident from the title track and opener, with Mann's distinctive vocals and favourite melodies, all washed with fuzzy punk-pop production. The album sets a direct course and starts with the best trio of songs. Labrador is a gorgeous blend of piano and soaring vocal, with an epic chorus. Mann still has a way of weaving and crafting obscure metaphor into intimate stories of characters - Gumby, Barfly and Crazytown approach this in different ways. Living A Lie breaks the formula by bringing in The Shins' James Mercer for an anti-love song duet and some great lines: "No one bares a grudge like a boy-genius, just past his prime...". Only the trite Gamma Ray and the odd country-esque closer Red Flag Diver drag the second half into mediocrity, which, after the best first half of any Aimee Mann album in a decade, is a bitter-pill.

Ben Folds Five - The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind

Since the band broke up in 2000, Ben Folds has enjoyed an excellent solo career with two great albums: Rockin' The Suburbs and Songs For Silverman, as well as work on television and film. The band, with Folds, Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee (in spite of the name, there are only three members - but Five sounded better than Three so...) reformed and The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind is a perfect example of why they got back together. The album highlights the band's glorious sense of chaos and fun, while showing their calmer, more reflective, side. Opener Erase Me is an obvious juxtaposition of styles with Folds quiet and delicate one minute and bombastically operatic the next, while the music follows his lead. The song races through its five minutes like a runaway train. Likewise Michael Praytor, Five Years Later is equally ambitious, as it the overt pop of Draw A Crowd (complete with funny-the-first-time-around, but not-so-after-a-while, chorus). The title track blends Folds' distinctive piano with Nick Horny lyrics (unused from Folds' last solo album, Lonely Avenue) and blurs the edges between genius and madness. In contrast Do It Anyway is delivered at furious speed, and almost works, in an many ways sums up the band's ethos. But it is the softer moments that bring this album to life. The Jessee penned Sky High is an undoubted highlight - staying on track and never threatening to throw noise or complication into the mix. On Being Frank is a gorgeous ballad with just the right amount of orchestral majesty and more of Folds' sublime piano, and Hold That Thought is more beautiful song writing, conjuring images at every turn. This heralds a calm serene end to an album that began in turbulence. Away When You Were Here and Thank You For Breaking My Heart form a perfect ending.

Band Of Horses - Mirage Rock

Band Of Horses are in a difficult position. Three amazing albums behind them: Everything All The Time, Cease To Begin and Infinite Arms, a distinctive sound and huge fan base. What do you do next? Instead of opting for something completely different, the band has 'updated' their sound and tried a few new things. And Mirage Rock will definitely divide critics and fans. Opener and lead single Knock Knock is a fine song, with Ben Bridwell and band on great form. This is not a massive departure from the tried-and-tested formula, mainly thanks to Bridwell's vocals, as is the mid-tempo How To Live and elegant ballad Slow Cruel Hands Of Time. A Little Biblical attempts to inject some pace and tongue-in-cheek observations, in the style of Fountains Of Wayne but with less charm. Oddly, it's the big changes that work the most on Mirage Rock. Dumpster World is a weird combination of Neil Young balladry and his own 'harder' style, while trying to highlight the folly of ignoring environmental issues. It ends a decent first half. Unfortunately the rest of Mirage Rock is inconsistent and badly judged. Electric Music feels a bit empty, Everything's Gonna Be Undone is uninspiring and prosaic, and Long Views, while beautifully executed, is revisiting the past with less material. Only the upbeat Feud tries to build some momentum but is swamped by percussion and unimaginative guitars. Closing song Heartbreak On The 101 is a strange vocal journey from deep to shallow across four minutes, but it works as an ending, with a subtle orchestral arrangement. So in an attempt to do something a bit different, Band Of Horses have ended up sounding mundane and stuck between sounds. And musically this is a huge step backwards from Infinite Arms. It is brave of them to try but when you have a good thing, why fix it?
-- CS

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Mercury Prize 2012

This year's nominations for the Mercury Prize are:
  • Alt-J - An Awesome Wave
  • Ben Howard - Every Kingdom
  • Django Django - Django Django
  • Field Music - Plumb
  • Jessie Ware - Devotion
  • Lianne La Havas - Is Your Love Big Enough?
  • Maccabees - Given to the Wild
  • Michael Kiwanuka - Home Again
  • Plan B - Ill Manors
  • Richard Hawley - Standing at the Sky's Edge
  • Roller Trio - Roller Trio
  • Sam Lee - Ground Of Its Own
An interesting list. Glad to see Richard Hawley and Sam Lee but the rest is very middle-of-the-road. Probably the weakest commercial line-up in years but some really interesting music, most notably Alt-J. Two very strong female singers in Jessie Ware and Lianne La Havas and the stand-out rap artist Plan B. This makes this year's Mercury difficult to predict.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Music Chart - August 2012

Top albums this month from Great Lake Swimmers, Diiv, Sharon Van Etten, The Unthanks, Grasscut, Franz Nicolay, Antony & The Johnsons, The Darkness, Yeasayer, Karine Polwart, Yellowcard, Of Monsters And Men and Elbow. This takes the Underwurld Music chart for the year past 100 great albums.
  1. Shallow Bed by Dry The River 
  2. Valtari by Sigur Ros
  3. The Lion's Roar by First Aid Kit
  4. Bloom by Beach House 
  5. Traces by Karine Polwart
  6. Ssss by Vcmg
  7. Generation Freakshow by Feeder
  8. Celebration Rock by Japandroids
  9. Cut The World by Antony & The Johnsons 
  10. Oshin by Diiv
  11. The Ghost In Daylight by Gravenhurst 
  12. An Awesome Wave by Alt-J 
  13. Sweet Heart Sweet Light by Spiritualized
  14. Ghostory by School of Seven Bells
  15. Born And Raised by John Mayer
  16. Like Drawing Blood by Gotye 
  17. Southern Air by Yellowcard
  18. Banga by Patti Smith
  19. Instinct by Niki And The Dove
  20. Electric Cables by Lightships
  21. New Wild Everywhere by Great Lake Swimmers
  22. The Unthanks with Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band by The Unthanks
  23. Even On The Worst Nights by Mixtapes
  24. Oceania by Smashing Pumpkins
  25. Blood Speaks by Smoke Fairies 
  26. Handwritten by The Gaslight Anthem
  27. Do The Struggle by Franz Nicolay
  28. The Light The Dead Can See by Soulsavers
  29. Sounds From Nowheresville by The Ting Tings
  30. Mutual Friends by Boy
  31. Moth by Exlovers
  32. Tramp by Sharon Van Etten
  33. WIXIW by Liars 
  34. My Head Is An Animal by Of Monsters And Men
  35. Young Man In America by Anais Mitchell
  36. The Sister by Marissa Nadler
  37. Americana by Neil Young and Crazy Horse 
  38. Unearth by Grasscut
  39. Little Broken Hearts by Norah Jones
  40. Hot Cakes by The Darkness
  41. Synthetica by Metric
  42. Words And Music by Saint Etienne
  43. Wonky by Orbital 
  44. Crown And Treaty by Sweet Billy Pilgrim 
  45. Shrines by Purity Ring
  46. Standing At The Sky's Edge by Richard Hawley
  47. Internal Logic by Grass Widow
  48. Strangeland by Keane
  49. Here Come The Bombs by Gaz Coombes
  50. Tough Love by Pulled Apart by Horses
  51. Interstellar by Frankie Rose
  52. Dead In The Boot by Elbow
  53. Wild Peace by Echo Lake
  54. Dub Egg by The Young
  55. Born Villain by Marilyn Manson
  56. Let It Break by Gemma Hayes
  57. Living Things by Linkin Park 
  58. Underwater Sunshine by Counting Crows
  59. Manifest! by Friends
  60. Clear Moon by Mount Eerie
  61. Tree Bursts In Snow by Admiral Fallow
  62. Human Don't Be Angry by Human Don't Be Angry
  63. The Family Tree: The Roots by Radical Face
  64. Weapons by Lostprophets
  65. Blues Funeral by Mark Lanegan Band
  66. A Monument by Tu Fawning
  67. Aufheben by The Brian Jonestown Massacre
  68. Have Some Faith In Magic by Errors
  69. Hello Cruel World by Gretchen Peters
  70. Voyageur by Kathleen Edwards
  71. Long Live The Struggle by The King Blues
  72. Fossil Of Girl by Sarah Donner
  73. Blunderbuss by Jack White
  74. Here I Am by Oli Brown 
  75. Spirits by Plankton Wat
  76. Visions by Grimes
  77. Tales From The Barrel House by Seth Lakeman 
  78. The Temper Trap by The Temper Trap
  79. ¿Which Side Are You On? by Ani Difranco
  80. Eighty One by Yppah
  81. Wrecking Ball by Bruce Springsteen
  82. First Serve by De La Soul's Plug 1 and Plug 2
  83. Kin Con by Alex Winston
  84. Not Your Kind Of People by Garbage
  85. Gossamer by Passion Pit
  86. Siberia by LIGHTS 
  87. Europe by Allo Darlin'
  88. The Something Rain by Tindersticks
  89. Something by Chairlift
  90. The House That Jack Built by Jesca Hoop
  91. Anxiety by Ladyhawke
  92. Fear Fun by Father John Misty 
  93. Fragrant World by Yeasayer
  94. California 37 by Train
  95. Break It Yourself by Andrew Bird
  96. Reign Of Terror by Sleigh Bells
  97. Given To The Wild by The Maccabees
  98. The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do by Fiona Apple
  99. Through The Night by Ren Harvieu
  100. Personality by Scuba
  101. America Give Up by Howler
  102. Black Light by Diagrams