Saturday, 31 August 2013

Tired Pony - The Ghost Of The Mountain (Album Review)

Supergroups are nothing new - and in recent years something to approach with caution. Jack White and Josh Homme can make it work, and so it seems can Gary Lightbody. Tired Pony brings together talent from Snow Patrol (Lightbody and Iain Archer), Belle & Sebastian (Richard Colburn) and R.E.M. (Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey) and début album, The Place We Ran From, proves that it is a worthwhile and relevant project. Lightbody wanted to make a 'country' album, and this is definitely the feel and mood of the band's introduction but follow-up The Ghost Of The Mountain is something quite different.

Claims by some that The Ghost Of The Mountain is just another Snow Patrol record are obviously absurd. Lightbody is the ever-present front-man, and his voice is both distinctive and familiar, but it is the continued contribution from Archer, Colburn and Buck that move the group up from the obvious style of their beginnings into a more established sound. Now, Tired Pony has its own identity. That said, it is amazing how the presence of an ex-guitarist from a now disbanded group can bring so much of his past into the present. Peter Buck (and to an extent, McCaughey) breaths the spirit of R.E.M. into this album as much as Lightbody brings his vocals. The effect is wonderful.

From the delicate opener I Don't Want You As A Ghost, deftly blending cool vocals with sublime guitars, and the pop-styled brilliance of I'm Begging You Not To Go, to the hard-hitting stomp of Blood, The Ghost Of The Mountain impresses from the start. The latter recounts a struggle to keep a relationship going, expletives and all; superb, honest and heartfelt song-writing. The Creak In The Floorboards continues the form, a more straight-forward and hopeful love-song. 'You know what I'm looking for now... coz I sure don't', Lightbody croons. It is clear now that this is still Americana, but a lot closer to the sounds of the individual contributors. A gorgeous vocal brings the song to a  finish.

The best guitar-work on the album is the magnificent All Things All At Once - a dark, brooding country waltz ('I will love you better than him...', is the stirring refrain, mixed with wordless choral vocals. Great instrumentation frames Wreckage And Bone - more folk than country as Tired Pony return to their roots for 'Act II'. Lightbody excels delivering the sort of fractured melancholy vocal that Chris Martin can only dream of, and again, his song-craft shows why he won an Ivor Novello.

The Ghost Of The Mountain diversifies in the second half, with interesting results. The Beginning Of The End breaks the formula somewhat and is two songs mashed together with some odd arrangements, while Carve Our Names is a smooth ballad with Lightbody augmented by female tones. Ravens And Wolves is bombastic grandstanding, backed up with some excellent guitars, strings and cold piano, and Punishment is drum-driven sleek electro-pop. Definitely unexpected, but not a massive departure.

The icing on the cake is the beautiful title track; another gorgeous vocal arrangement, blending wordless choir with stark lyrics. Lightbody is in reflective, doubting mood and musically, this is the sound of a band who have been together for decades. Buck's guitar-work is (as always) incredible. To close, Your Way Is The Way Home is an understated finish with an emotive lyric within a perfect melody. It threatens to soar, stadium-bound, but stays firmly on the ground, Lightbody stepping aside to let Kim Popper bring the song and the album to a close.

The key to Tired Pony and The Ghost Of The Mountain is songwriting and commitment from all involved. You bring together talent and that is what you get, all controlled and focused with no egos to keep in check or dismiss. This may be Lightbody's dream but the band deliver at every turn - and, while not members of the band, Minnie Driver, Bronagh Gallagher and Kim Topper add some light vocal touches. The sound is very comfortable and established; often safe ground (no massive guitar solos or eight-minute sonic-string orchestras here) but this is exactly what everyone is good at - mature, accomplished songs, elegantly produced.
-- CS

Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Polyphonic Spree - Yes, It's True (Album Review 2013)

The Polyphonic Spree, led by Tim DeLaughter, and now with a mere twenty musician line-up (including six-piece female choir), release their fifth album Yes, It's True. It's hard to believe they've only made four previous albums, if you count the hit-miss Christmas album of 2012. The band's working philosophy has always been, and will probably remain from now until the end of time, that 'more is less'. This is certainly the approach here, showing the best and the worst of a band who look and feel more like a cult movement; a subversive secret society, designed to inject irony-free happiness into an otherwise unhappy world.

Yes, It's True starts wonderfully. Cool opener You Don't Know Me is the perfect introduction before the two big songs Popular By Design, with its oddly robotic hypnotic chorus against the DeLaughter inner monologue verses, and the sparkling piano-pop of Hold Yourself Up, provide an instant and early album high-point. The wistful vocals of Carefully Try, with added horn section transforms halfway from Flaming Lips to Mercury Rev with increased sound and pace, before the piano ballad You're Golden, a love-song for the geek culture (it's not your Facebook 'Likes'...) becomes a heartfelt and warming tribute.

So far, so uplifting. Sadly, Yes, It's True falls flat in the centre. Heart Talk is bad Bowie. The start/stop Blurry Up The Lines is a confused mess, especially when it builds for the second half, and Let Them Be is a mix of clashing instrumentation. But the album picks up for a strong finish... Raise Your Head is solid, from drum opening build-up into a glorious symphony with a mix of ideas and sounds that (unlike the previous twelve minutes or so) works. What Would You Do? is easily the highlight of the second half - a massive, noisy, group therapy and Q&A session with DeLaughter at the chair. It quietens teasingly for a big riotous finale. And closer Battlefield, which could be clumsy and cluttered is, instead, a gorgeous and delicate piano ballad with horns to finish.

So Yes, It's True is almost a great Polyphonic Spree album; it has the spirit and the heart of a band that is united in a cause. The message from DeLaughter and crew is always positive and welcoming, even if the songs don't work. But that is what you get when 'more is the new less'.
-- CS

Karine Polwart - Threshold

I don't normally review compilations but in this case I'll make an exception, even if it's a quick one...

Threshold is a collection of songs by one of Britain's most gifted and talented folk singers, Karine Polwart, all taken from her albums Scribbled In Chalk, Fairest Floo'er and This Earthly Spell, as well as Medusa from The-Build-Your-Own-Cathedral EP. Strangely, there is nothing from her début award-winning album Faultlines, which would have enhanced this even further. (And add the best of Polwart's latest album Traces and you'll have one of the strongest compilations of folk songs of any artist working today.)

Threshold shows many different sides of Karine Polwart, from old to new. Whereas her second and fourth albums comprise original new songs, Fairest Floo'er is traditional with new arrangements. So, both Dowie Dens Of Yarrow and The Death Of Queen Jane (with superb modern piano arrangement) are stirring, dark and powerful, matched only by the mournful messages of Medusa and the venomous Sorry, highlighting the emptiness of forgiving, through religious imagery and ideals. Elsewhere Threshold is lighter and fairer of touch. Opener Rivers Run and later Take Its Own Time are superbly arranged and performed, the former blending jolly, up-beat guitars with a reflective vocal style and some wonderful backing vocals. Daisy is simply beautiful song writing about a simple/complex soul - 'There are people in this world who don't think like you do...' is the refrain. Better Things is also excellent, a song of hopes, fears and dreams while the final trio of nostalgic Follow The Heron, The Good Years (an epic, folk-pop anthem) and Terminal Star (complete with 'surprise' ending) show Polwart's song-craft.

As a compilation, Threshold is uncluttered, well-constructed and perfectly judged. And above all it is a brilliant introduction to a folk legend.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

The Duckworth Lewis Method - Sticky Wickets


The Duckworth Lewis Method, aka Neil Hannon (The Divine Comedy) and Thomas Walsh (Pugwash), and named after the mathematical system for calculating a target cricket score after a match is disrupted - usually by the weather, return with a second album of cricket-themed songs. This time round, they have proved that this clever, insightful, project is more than just a novelty act for a select group of purists who understand cricket's unique and baffling 'language'.

Where the eponymous début was a tentative low-key introduction, Sticky Wickets is a triumphant celebration. The title track is deliciously tongue-in-cheek, before the attention-grabbing Boom Boom Afridi (a tribute to the Pakistan legend), to the Henry Blofeld infused irony of It's Just Not Cricket. 

The musical variety brings in influences from Steely Dan to ELO with some wonderful emotive moments. The Umpire is especially stirring, before the mid-tempo Third Man - beautifully summing up cricket's worst fielding position. Out In The Middle is equally good, before the superb electronic Line And Length, filled with unique and beguiling cricketing language.

Stephen Fry narrates the oddity Judd's Paradox and closer Nudging And Nurdling has a host of 'celebrities' repeating the humorous phrase throughout. Only The Laughing Cavaliers drags the album down late-on, back to the world of novelty. 

So The DLM are back with a well-judged concept album and a good balance between sporting cliché and genuine acute observations - one that cricket fans, and those with no interest whatsoever, will enjoy equally.
-- CS

Thea Gilmore - Regardless (Album Review 2013)

Thea Gilmore is one of our most prolific and underrated songwriters. After a brilliant run of albums, from début Burning Dorothy to breakthrough masterpiece Avalanche, Gilmore hasn't quite reached the same heights since. Recent studio albums Liejacker, the 'alternative' Christmas record: Strange Communion, and Murphy's Heart, have been mixed, while the 'original' covers of Loft Music, and audacious recording of Dylan's John Wesley Harding, are both superb. And in recent years, albeit too briefly, her Angels In The Abattoir project has produced some real gems, all unreleased and exclusive to dedicated fans. So album fourteen, Regardless, is Gilmore back a decade, to the days of folk/pop, sharp political and social statement and above all, a real sense of vibrant, energised, drive.

The mark is made with opener Something To Sing About, with spiky verses and punchy chorus, set to a driving guitar and string-filled backing. Gilmore stretches her vocal range with the slower This Is How You Find The Way, repeating the refrain 'it's a beautiful day'. Musically, this is much more industrial, with electronic flourishes and bouncy percussion. And the gorgeous title track, a moody mid-tempo waltz (something of a speciality), and easily Gilmore's finest vocal, is wonderful. This is matched only with the delicate love song, I Will Not Disappoint You. With just a hint of Everybody Hurts, this is a personal, open-hearted, ballad. In the first half, only the odd Spit And Shine doesn't quite fit - a 'Vampire Weekend' soundtrack muddies the dark, spiteful, venomous message.

In contrast, Start As You Mean To Go On is shameless 60s pop and the darker Love Came Looking For Me is just as direct, a perfect anti-love song. In between, Punctuation is an intriguing tale, like a heated discussion between angels and demons, gods and prophets - to create a brilliant intellectual interlude. The final three songs on Regardless do not disappoint. This Road and Let It Be Known are both suburb; political and honest, on the latter Gilmore sings 'Let it be known I have religion, though it was more a contact sport... I held the people I was given; prayed to the lessons that they taught' - possibly the best line she has written. After these, closer My Friend Goodbye is a downbeat finish - that said, the vocal arrangement is beautiful.

It is clear from Regardless that Thea Gilmore is in a good place, both personally and musically. She sounds equally at home on her own with a guitar or piano, or with a full band, but it appears that the 'big sound' is exactly what was needed to fuel these songs. There is great support, as always from Nigel Stonier. More consistent than recent albums and certainly more focused, Regardless is Thea Gilmore at her wonderful best.
-- CS