Saturday, 22 September 2012

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

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