Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Push The Sky Away (Album Review 2013)

In 2009, Mick Harvey left Nick Cave as the last remaining founding member of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. It ended a 25 year career. Their last album together: Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! was one of their more inconsistent, ending the band's run of form that started in 1994 with the introduction of Warren Ellis (then a guest member) on Let Love In followed by the glorious Murder Ballads. This marked a transition, not only physically but musically, from upstart punks 'Kicking Against The Pricks' to master song-crafters, troubadours and poets - with The Boatman's Call and Cave's tour-de-force No More Shall We Part, still his most beautiful and proficient song writing, they matured and evolved. And in 2004, the double album Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus yielded some of the best songs the band has produced. Push The Sky Away is Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' first album in five years. Distracted by evil-twin side-project Grinderman, and the lure of soundtracks to expand their musical repertoire, Cave, Ellis and drummer Tom Wydler - now the stylistic core of the Bad Seeds - are back to their main, important, focus.

From the outset, Push The Sky Away is truly mesmerising. The combination of Cave's deep, resonating, evocative vocals and the oddly compelling, often hypnotic sounds of bass, drums, guitars, big strings, then tiny hushed rhythms, create an album of songs that absorb rather than enthral. It is dark, with edges of light and shade and, while not as minimalist as The Boatman's Call, certainly echoes its feel and mantra. This conception is augmented by some earth-shattering moments - all building to the mighty opus of Jubilee Street. From stark, lazy guitar-led narrative to mournful strings, through a subtle change of pace - Cave matching this startling effect with the line 'The problem was, she had a little black book; and my name was written on every page...' as the story unfolds, moving from third to first person as the music builds to a glorious guitar/violin crescendo. Leading to this moment, Wide Lovely Eyes and Water's Edge set the cold, desolate tone. The former, a listless, wavering love song - keyboards gliding over cut-glass percussion with Cave almost speaking the lyrics, while the latter unfolds like a horror movie, driven by Martyn Casey's bass and Cave's evocative delivery.

At times Push The Sky Away sounds like the songs are fragments of much bigger ideas, yet the unstructured, loose approach is incredibly effective - the listener is dipping in and out of a collective, wandering consciousness. An exception to this rule is structured opener We No Who U R - instantly recognisable with Cave's breathy vocals against the Ellis flute, and delicate backing vocals. This is haunting, creepy and sympathetic in equal measures. In contrast, one of the album's more serene moments, proving that Cave can still deftly amuse, confuse and delight at every turn, Mermaids is a joyous love song. 'I do driver alertness course, I do husband alertness course, I do mermaid alertness course...' is one of the most bizarre, yet perfect, lines he has written. After the magnificently understated We Real Cool and the stupefying Finishing Jubilee Street, Push The Sky Away ends with the near eight-minute Higgs Boson Blues; Cave becoming more bewildered and frenetic - part mad scientist, part sceptic - as the song progresses. Musically, the mood is matched by the rising guitars and lazy percussion. The title track brings the album to a close in majestic style - a late highlight of contrasting vocals, drifting music and thoughtful tone.

In 2013 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds have made an album which sounds unlike anything else. Push The Sky Away is unique in its mood and its execution. It is as if the band made a conventional record of complete structured pop songs, the vocal arrangements and guitar/piano marrying predictably, and then replaced the soundtrack with murmuring heartbeats and subtle, yet mesmerising loops - to create an oddly oppressive feel and texture. Push The Sky Away isn't an album that is pitched for commercial success, nor is it solely for fans and purists; it hits the middle ground perfectly as something different, yet familiar, compelling and relevant. At last it sounds like the chaotic and disjointed Grinderman project has proved to be the necessary catharsis for Cave and The Seeds to polish the jagged edges and make way for this uniquely beautiful, dark and captivating genius.
-- CS

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Veronica Falls - Waiting For Something To Happen (Album Review 2013)

Sometimes the difficult second album really isn't that difficult. London's Veronica Falls seem to have followed their promising eponymous 2011 début with such effortless precision that Waiting For Something To Happen sounds like a classic mid-80s indie guitar album. Far from the smouldering wet ashes of punk and the impending pomp and arrogance of Britpop, this quartet of lead vocalist Roxanne Clifford, guitarist/vocalist James Hoare, bassist Marion Herbain and drummer/vocalist Patrick Doyle are reminding us of a world of shimmering guitar hooks, delicious three-part harmonies and sparkling, vibrant pop songs.

Waiting For Something To Happen kicks off in style with the wonderful Tell Me, the pure combination of velvety vocals and looping guitars, accelerating out of the first minute on a wave of pounding drums. The stark, awkward, Gothic rhythms of the band's début are gone, now replaced with a shining energy and clear confidence. Recent single Teenage is just as arresting, a tale of discovery and love, memories of 'driving home' and letting your better half 'listen to the music they like', followed by the excellent Broken Toy - the best pop song on the album and some of the best lines. 'If you don't care, you'll never care; if you don't care now, you'll never know how' leads to a punchy, yet downbeat, chorus and a quick guitar break before the next. This is slick, uncluttered song writing.

The highlight of the album is the glorious trilogy of the title track - another perfect blend of guitars and vocals all brought together with the deft percussion, the darker feel of If You Still Want Me - with Clifford and Hoare providing their best vocal arrangement over the thundering guitars, and My Heart Beats - another excellent vocal and chorus. In the second half of Waiting For Something To Happen, Everybody's Changing and the brilliant Falling Out, with its verse-hook-chorus structure, dropping then rising, continue the charm. These quickly make way for the final duo of the beautiful Daniel, a three-vocal ballad set to a rippling guitar track, and closer Last Conversation, a slow-building epic (at nearly four minutes, the longest song on the album) of spellbinding vocals wound into another gorgeous arrangement.

It's not every day that a band make an album that captures the body and soul of a band as perfectly as Veronica Falls' Waiting For Something To Happen. Clifford and Hoare blend effortlessly with guitars and vocals to create new instruments and textures, while the production is light and adds a brightness to the songs. This is the sound of a band proving they are much bigger, and better, than the sum of their parts; a proficient and skilful machine of old souls and new minds.
-- CS

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

I Am Kloot - Let It All In (Album Review 2013)

Once the greatest Manchester band no one had heard of, I Am Kloot are now flirting with the mainstream thanks to previous album: the impressive, Mercury Prize nominated, Sky At Night. Ten years from their eponymous second album, Let It All In continues in the same style, blending pop and folk to create a truly unique mix to compliment lead-singer John Bramwell's characteristic, earthy vocals. Let It All In follows Sky At Night both in terms of musical creativity and songwriting. Bramwell is continuing to excel as a singer and a lyricist, while Peter Jobson and Andy Hargreaves are as prolific as ever in support.

From the slow-building mid-tempo waltz of opener Bullets, the music steadily building to a noisy disjointed guitar break, the line 'You treat your mind like a cheap hotel; somewhere you can stay but never stop..' stands out (later substituting 'mind' for 'body'). Let Them All In is a clever verse-chorus combination in which Bramwell, with his finger on the pulse of the nation, asks 'Is this a free-load trip or an ordinary situation?' in weary, charming style. The early stand-out moment arrives with the slow, dark brooding Hold Back The Night - a wonderful vocal from Bramwell as the song builds to a neat string section, and then a big, dramatic guitar finish. These moments owe much to the production skills of Guy Garvey and Craig Potter (Elbow), and their presence adds a polish to the raw, edgy I Am Kloot sound.

Another highlight is the gorgeous Shoeless (lifting the album after the lacklustre Mouth On Me), a reminiscing love song with another superb arrangement. Bramwell delivers 'Don't let the clouds clutter up your skies; let the TVs turn off their weary eyes'; another great line, but it is the mighty production of Even The Stars (first heard on the Moolah Rouge DVD) that steals the show with its beautiful arrangement, guitar work, and dramatic, sparingly-executed vocal. Masquerade borrows somewhat from Coming Around by Travis and adds a folky charm to the album - with echoes of John Lennon in the vocal, and Some Better Day brings a brass arrangement to the quirky charm. This may not be the best song but it delivers the best writing with: 'Through the gales of life and laughter, when you don't know what you're after; drag me to the kitchen sink, my whole day is on the brink; from here I can see the moon, I think I'll move there someday soon'.

Let It All In is consistent to the end with the album's best song: the delicate, yet mighty, These Days Are Mine - a wonderful arrangement, reminiscent of The Cedar Room (fellow Manchurians Doves), complete with a smooth choral finish. And closer Forgive Me These Reminders, an ambient reflective ballad, is perfectly judged to round off an impressive album.

I Am Kloot have moved on greatly from 2005's Gods And Monsters, which ended the band's first chapter. A shift from sparse spiky arrangements, bitter-sweet lyrics and edgy themes has positioned the band to a more accessible position, and the music is better for it. Now reunited with Garvey and Potter, a more commercial sound has been reinvented, while ensuring that the personality is retained to keep centre-stage. With Sky At Night and now Let It All In, it feels like the next life for a band who always had the voice but no room in which to use it.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Eels - Wonderful, Glorious (Album Review 2013)

In 2005, Mark Everett (E) put his life story into song, once and for all, and created the masterpiece Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. We all knew this wasn't to be the end of the E saga. A trilogy of 'concept' albums has followed, all slightly different and themed (loss, desire and redemption), but all delivering more of the same - his trademark thoughts and dreams, tributes of the long departed, and hopes of the future. So what next in the troubled life of Mark Everett? Wonderful, Glorious has been pitched as a new direction - a more upbeat album, pop-tinged with garage blues and a more robust feel than the delicate arrangements of Tomorrow Morning and End Times.

Wonderful, Glorious feels like the direct successor to 2001's Souljacker. From the opener Bombs Away - possibly an ironic nod to the media's perception of the aforementioned prelude, E announces that he is back, in dark, menacing style - this is immediately self-referential, with harsh rasping distorted vocals set to a horror movie soundtrack. Over the five-minute running time, E goes from 'whispering fool' to howling maniac. Kinda Fuzzy is the hangover, a Beck-like exploration into an addled mind, gliding through different styles and textures. It is clear that Wonderful, Glorious is an album of contrasts as Accident Prone is a minimalist ballad and a sedate controlled tale of serendipity. The big drums and buzzing guitars of Peach Blossom bring us back - E reels off repetitive lyrics until the guitars take over in the second half for a cool arrangement.

The best of Wonderful, Glorious is the core of the album. On The Ropes is an obvious metaphor, beautifully woven into a heartfelt ballad. E is firmly at home playing the broken man, or the troubled soul planning and scheming but never fulfilling his desires. The Turnaround is the album highlight - the thoughts of a defeated yet hopeful drifter and another wonderful arrangement. 'I always bit the hand that beat me' is simple and effective. It builds to a rousing climax. Another high point is the cool, creepy, pop of New Alphabet, complete with distorted vocals and edgy guitars - a great example of Eels as a robust 'band'. Stick Together takes the same approach - the 50s guitars and cheesy lyrics showing a 'lighter side' to E: 'It's me and you, taking on all comers...watching them fall and nothing could be fun-er'.

Wonderful, Glorious builds to a good finish. True Original is a moving tribute and Open My Present is more of E in antagonistic mode. This could be an Eels Christmas record. You're My Friend is one of the only moments when it doesn't work - the weary vocal compliments the lumbering guitars and limp electronica, but this is immediately forgotten as I Am Building A Shrine is wonderful - the vocal production shows E's voice perfectly and it is an open, honest love song. The album closes with the title track which limps from a structureless first half of empty spaces and pseudo-funk guitars to a brilliant finale. E's last words are unexpected and poignant: 'My love is beautiful, it's here for the taking, it's strong and pure and utterly Earth-shaking... My love is only here to show you it's true, or it's like me...you'll make it through'. The delivery is honest and irony free.

At times it feels like Wonderful, Glorious is turning back the clock, to replace the messy and incoherent Shootenanny! but it also feels very much in the present. E is still a prolific songwriter, even if his reference points seem limited and the subject matter veers into melancholy, frustration and contrast. He often sounds distance these days and upbeat moments are hard to engage (Peach Blossom's lyrics do not conjure a picture of a man enjoying the springtime but someone sitting in a dark room, thinking about how great it would be to go outside - but avoiding the disappointment when it doesn't meet his imagined expectations). Tragedy and loss has fuelled E's music for decades and looking back to the dark times is always going to happen. But now that his life story is written, these days he is not looking back too far...
-- CS

Biffy Clyro - Opposites (Album Review 2013)

It comes a time in the evolution of every band when, not satisfied with taking their art to the next level, they take it a level further. Biffy Clyro - still a formidable trio of Simon Neil and twin brothers James and Ben Johnston - have continued to beguile and intrigue, since the 2007 landmark album Puzzle, with their unique blend of guitar-fuelled, often progressive, hard-edged emotional music. Two years on, the band released the brilliant, Mercury Prize nominated, Only Revolutions; an instant critical success positioning Biffy Clyro as a more acceptable alternative to the pomp and extravagance of Muse and the emotive wide-eyed visions of Coldplay. And like their contemporaries, they are now filling stadia, headlining festivals and firmly in the mainstream - so what better way to acknowledge this presence than to make two albums in one, one celebrating the past and the other bringing in the future. Opposites is a huge double-album, bloated with ambitions and startling arrangements, packed with Neil's double-edged lyrics and vocal arrangements, and seemingly limitless in its scope and depth.

The two sides of Opposites are not as musically opposed as they first seem. Part one (named unofficially as 'The Sand at the Core of Our Bones') is not packed with all the big songs, leaving part two ('The Land at the End of Our Toes') as a weaker bag of experimentation and wilder moments. Far from it. The entire album is expansive and coherent, and the songs flow with consistency. From the opening Different People, a delicate cinematic ballad transforming into frantic guitars and drums, to the stirring emotional pop of recent single Black Chandelier, it is clear that this ambitious project is still wrapped up the familiar Biffy Clyro approach. In the latter, Neil throws us 'When it's just the two of us... and a cute little cup of cyanide' and the band deliver a heavy, muddy guitar break - not your typical love song. Opposite, with echoes of Idlewild at their brilliant best, is more controlled, heartbreaking and emotional, soaring with 'Baby, I'm leaving here...you need to be with somebody else', while Biblical is near-perfect pop, a simple trick wonderfully executed, brimming with obvious rhymes within a superb vocal structure. The second half of 'The Sand...' is something of a mixed bag. The Fog stands out as obscure and magical with playful and mysterious guitar-work making way for a heavier, menacing, Mogwai-esque finish, while Little Hospitals is more of an 'emo' montage of other ideas pieced together, like something from Green Day's American Idiot. But it is The Thaw, another love song with a big open-hearted chorus, closing part one in style. 'Forgive me if my mouth is dry, I'll blame it on my battle cry' sings Neil, as the delicate guitars wash through the song. This builds to a rousing chorus and predictably, a big finish.

'The Land...' opens with the big, bold arrangement of Stingin' Belle, complete with bagpipes to compliment the driving drums and guitars. Ben Johnston excels in the second half as a huge instrumental closes the song. Modern Magic Formula has all the feel of an anti-fame protest song, delivered through punk-pop guitars and pounding drums - Neil sings 'So you wanted to change the world? But I didn't believe you...' before the emotional: 'I'm trying the best I can but there's a white flag burning in the middle of my hand'. This is more loose and liberated than anything before - slightly out of control and manic. Victory Over The Sun is similarly vitriolic - the juxtaposition of sharp verses and a gliding chorus with big strings to finish. This leads to the best of part two, Pocket, another great pop song, bringing in piano and a sublime guitar arrangement. Skylight is another example of Biffy Clyro taking on the likes of Coldplay and winning the battle of the emotional heartstrings. 'We are users...but at least we use each other, friend...' is another brilliant line from Neil. The song quickly dives into a massive cinematic instrumental adding another dimension. In the final trilogy, Accident Without Emergency is another highlight while closer Picture A Knife Fight brings together obscure references and an upbeat chorus into a spirited finale. 'We've got to stick together' becomes the last refrain.

The risk with Opposites is always that quantity would make way for quality but this is never the case. The band sound magnificent and Simon Neil's writing is as compelling and as sharp as always. The album never seems bloated and over-thought - granted there are a few weak moments - The Joke's On Us is instantly forgettable, Sounds Like Balloons and Spanish Radio are trademark (spiky and anthemic) but nothing new, and Trumpet or Tap is an odd attempt at something different with an overblown ending; yet the ebbs and flows help create the overall structure and charm. The 'single edition' of the album is baffling idea - an attempt to merge 'The Sand...' and 'The Land...' together while omitting stand-out songs like The Fog, Pocket and Accident Without Emergency. But overall, Opposites is the sound of an band reaching their true potential and a brilliant attempt at staking claim to a poorly-guarded kingdom, left vacant by bands who can no longer defend it.

Monday, 4 February 2013

BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Winners!

The Winners and Nominees

  • Winner - NIC JONES
  • Sam Lee
  • Jim Moray
  • Karine Polwart
  • Katriona Gilmore & Jamie Roberts
  • Hannah James & Sam Sweeney
  • O'Hooley & Tidow
  • Winner - LAU
  • Bellowhead
  • Treacherous Orchestra
  • The Unthanks
BEST ALBUM [Public vote]
  • Ground Of Its Own - Sam Lee
  • Race The Loser – Lau
  • Skulk - Jim Moray
  • Traces - Karine Polwart
  • Winner - BLAIR DUNLOP
  • Luke Jackson
  • Maz O'Connor
  • Rura
  • Recipient - BILLY BRAGG
  • Ross Ainslie
  • Duncan Chisholm
  • Sam Sweeney
  • Luke Jackson
  • Graham Mackenzie & Ciorstaidh Beaton
  • Thalla
  • Tha Sneachd‘ air Druim Uachdair by Kathleen MacInnes
  • Unknown Air by Duncan Chisholm
  • Wild Wood Amber by Sam Lee
  • King of Birds by Karine Polwart
  • Tailor by Anaïs Mitchell
  • The Ballad of Andy Jacobs by Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman
  • Recipient - ALY BAIN
  • Recipient - ROY HARPER
  • Recipient - DOUGIE MACLEAN

Music Chart - January 2013

New year, new chart! A quiet start to 2013 but some interesting new albums from Villagers, Serafina Steer, Christopher Owens, Dutch Uncles, Yo La Tengo, Wooden Wand, New Order, California X, The Joy Formidable, Esben and the Witch, Widowspeak, I Am Kloot, Mountains and Paul Simon....
  1. Let It All In by I Am Kloot
  2. Fade by Yo La Tengo
  3. Wolf's Law by The Joy Formidable
  4. Blood Oaths Of The New Blues by Wooden Wand
  5. Centralia by Mountains
  6. Lysandre by Christopher Owens
  7. California X by California X
  8. Almanac by Widowspeak
  9. Wash The Sins Not Only The Face by Esben And The Witch
  10. The Moths Are Real by Serafina Steer
  11. {Awayland} by Villagers
  12. Out Of Touch In The Wild by Dutch Uncles
  13. Lost Sirens by New Order
  14. Early Rocking by Paul Simon