Thursday, 30 January 2014

Album Chart - January 2014

Another new year and another new album chart. A slow start to the month has picked up in the last two weeks and three great albums from Mogwai, Model Village and The Gloaming.

  1. Rave Tapes by Mogwai
  2. The Gloaming by The Gloaming
  3. You Chose These Woes by Model Village
  4. In The Silence by Asgeir
  5. Croz by David Crosby
  6. Cursing The Sea by September Girls
  7. High Hopes by Bruce Springsteen
  8. Waking Lines by Patterns
  9. Wig Out At Jagbags by Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
  10. Total Strife Forever by East India Youth
  11. Warpaint by Warpaint
  12. The Crystal Method by The Crystal Method
  13. Kid Face by Samantha Crain
  14. Oh My Sexy Lord by Marijuana Deathsquads

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Mogwai - Rave Tapes (Album Review 2014)

The musical chronology of Mogwai can be defined as three acts. The début masterpiece Mogwai Young Team with its epic triplets Like Herod, R U Still In 2 It and Mogwai Fear Satan, the difficult and inconsistent but often brilliant Come On Die Young, and the textured ground-breaking keyboard-infused Rock Action, form act one. Added to these are the band's early EPs, collectively released as EP+6. Act two is one of the best trilogies of albums by any band: Happy Songs For Happy People, Mr Beast and The Hawk Is Howling are the combined sound of a band ascending to greatness; if anyone wants to own a near-perfect example of 'post rock', they should look no further than these. This era also includes the first adventurous steps into film scoring, something Mogwai were born to do: Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is a dark, ambient and subtle soundtrack. And now, seventeen years after the band's début, Mogwai are expanding their horizons in act three: the live album Special Moves, the Earth Division EP and 'upbeat' studio album Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (in spite of the harsh title this is one of Mogwai's lighter and more liberated albums, including the wonderful Music For A Forgotten Future), then another wonderful soundtrack: Les Revenants to accompany an extraordinary series of French television (The Returned in the UK) followed a slightly disappointing remix album A Wrenched Virile Lore. An impressive body of work, now complimented by Mogwai's eighth studio release, Rave Tapes.

From the opening song, Heard About You Last Night, it's clear that Rave Tapes is an electronic-infused artistic return to The Hawk Is Howling; a typical Mogwai introduction: building slowly as a soundtrack fragment before the guitars glide in, to provide the melody, then joined by strings and synthesizers. The loose, lumbering arrangement is held together with Martin Bulloch's sublime percussion. This fails to translate into momentum (in the same way as Mr Beast's Auto Rock dives into Glasgow Maga-Snake and Batcat arrives early on The Hawk Is Howling to drive the album forward), as the fuzzy production and slow-pace of Simon Ferocious makes for a subdued start. Again, the drumming is superb. It is not until the start of Remurdered that Rave Tapes shows its teeth - the dark, menacing dread of a 'bass line' and creepy atmosphere juxtaposed with fragmented drums and guitars. Three minutes in and the keyboards and drums arrive, like the soundtrack to a movie in which 8-bit machines take over the unsuspecting world. The song builds as more layers of guitars add to the threat, while the electronic threads march to the cold, calculated finale.

Hexon Bogon is a flash of brilliance; a rare two-and-a-half-minute swathe of guitars, drums and epic production before the beguiling wonder of Repelish, an uneasy mix of start-stop guitar melody and spoken word - talking of the dangers of demonic subliminal messages in rock music. Easily the most eclectic song on any Mogwai album; unique, compelling and unexpected. Master Card is back on course, a furious staccato guitar-led piece building to a messy and abrupt finish, before the magnificent Deesh provides another highlight: a gorgeous blend of guitars, drums and keyboards used to construct a melodic arrangement of hope and despair. Mogwai at their supreme best. The final trio of songs on Rave Tapes add more vocals to an otherwise, and typical, instrumental world. Blues Hour reworks Cody beautifully with added muddy guitars and stirring piano, the soft vocals creating a new instrument instead of talking centre-stage, while No Medicine For Regret is the late highlight, with its breathtaking vibrato melody washing over the dense brooding backdrop. To close, The Lord Is Out Of Control is a lazy, droning, vocoder-filled non-entity which feels like an unnecessary distraction.

It isn't clear if Rave Tapes is the end of act three or the start of act four for Mogwai. What is clear, is a return to safety as if the band need to revisit their most creative and productive period. This makes the album a predictable and unsurprising experience, which is no bad thing - when listening to the new Bob Dylan you wouldn't expect 80s electro-pop. Mogwai's signature and unique personality is all over Rave Tapes, a thoroughly enjoyable hybrid of past and present, safe yet edgy, different but the same - exactly what you would expect from a band consistently redefining their post-rock world.
- CS

Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Vinyl Frontier - Crosby, Stills & Nash, Throwing Muses

My first record fair of the year (Southampton Solent University Conference Centre, Saturday 18th January), uncovered some interesting gems. First up is the début Crosby, Stills & Nash album, with gatefold sleeve featuring slightly out-of-focus photos of the band and lyric sheet, and is now the oldest vinyl recording I own (1969). It plays well on my Pro-Ject carbon, Kenwood amp and Q speakers, although the bass fights to come through and the production sounds a little fuzzy. It's a great album that hasn't aged too well in terms of song-writing but the combined vocals of CSN are without question, beautiful. Likewise, a German release of Harvest by Neil Young is equally lovely, the follow-up to the brilliant After The Goldrush and is always in its predecessor's shadow.

I am always looking out for 'cult' bands and artists from the 80s and 90s and whenever I frequent fairs and new record shops, I am instantly drawn to any boxes labelled 'punk/new wave' or 'alternative' (if there are any). One band's recently re-discovered catalogue is Throwing Muses (their album Purgatory/Paradise from late last year is a masterpiece) but I have never found any decent vinyl...until now. I wait years and two come along at once: Hunkpapa and Limbo - neither are the best Throwing Muses albums but great nonetheless, both in good condition and sound like they have hardly been played.

Three more to finish: Midnight Oil's breakthrough mid-eighties tribute/protest album Diesel and Dust (picked up at a new record shop I found on the way home from the record fair) - this has been well-played but has enough huge arrangements to hide any imperfections. The Echo & The Bunnymen singles collection Songs To Learn & Sing has plenty of great songs, although not a rarity. And lastly, the début Happy Head from The Mighty Lemon Drops - a band always second to The Teardrop Explodes for me but another great addition to my growing collection of vinyl.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Bruce Springsteen - High Hopes (Album review 2014)

Revisiting old material isn't always easy, but if anyone can pull it off, it's The Boss. Given that in recent years, Bruce Springsteen has lost two of his closest friends and long-serving members of The E Street Band: Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, it's fitting that he should give them one final walk on stage (they each appear on two songs and together on one). High Hopes comprises many reworks, two covers and studio recordings of tour favourites, with the former Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello (who toured as part of The E Street Band in 2008/9) instrumental (pun intended) in bringing this album to life. His presence and skill is (almost) ever-present.

To say this doesn't feel like a proper Springsteen album would be wrong; if you didn't know High Hopes is a collection of covers, re-recordings and 'rejects', most wouldn't know or case. Obviously even a passing fan would pick up on The Ghost Of Tom Joad but as a cohesive work, it stands alone. Not all albums have a strong narrative and a central 'story' and the last few Springsteen albums (Wrecking Ball and Magic most notably) are good examples. The title track (originally from the Blood Brothers EP - and not written by Springsteen), complete with brass flashes and odd arrangement, is a solid, attention-grabbing opener, followed by The Rising cut Harry's Place, a song better than half of those that made the album. This is a running theme in the world of The Promise shows.

The two covers on High Hopes almost steal the album. Just Like Fire Would, originally by The Saints, is wonderfully faithful to the original but sounds very 'Springsteen', with added organ, denser guitar work and, of course, the trademark rasping vocals. And Suicide's cold, stark Dream Baby Dream is given a warmer interpretation with softer keyboards, stronger vocals and a fuller sound. A brilliant reworking. To complement this, Hunter Of Invisible Game wouldn't be out of place on the marvellous Devils & Dust, perfectly produced with delicate strings and guitars, Springsteen on top vocal form delivering his poetry. But the two stand-out moments have to be twin seven minute epics of American Skin (41 Shots), brilliantly recorded to capture the spirit of the live recording, and the legendary masterpiece The Ghost Of Tom Joad, complete with Morello's manic impossible guitars filling out the second half.

High Hopes is far from ground-breaking and not beyond criticism - after all if you are one of the most famous musicians in the world you better live up to it... and even here, Bruce Springsteen can make an album that is engaging and warm. It's not all good news as songs like the obvious Heaven's Wall, the hapless Frankie Fell In Love and the Celtic-infused This Is Your Sword drag the middle of High Hopes down but the gorgeous balladry of The Wall is another understated gem - Springsteen at his best when he just tells a story, plain and simple; especially poignant when it's a story close to your heart. The trumpet solo to finish and organ from the late Federici, are breathtaking. This album is more a labour of love than a statement of intent.
-- CS

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Sam Smith wins BBC Sound of 2014

Congratulations to 21 year old Sam Smith for winning this year's BBC 'Sound of' poll. In a longlist that was shamefully low on guitar bands and heavy on urban acts and solo artists, Smith pipped fellow dance vocalists Ella Eyre and BANKS to the top spot. Sadly, no place for the wonderful Luke Sital-Singh, but George Ezra grabbed fifth place behind the equally enigmatic Sampha. A top five of soloists.

Smith is best known for the Disclosure song acoustic version (arguably better than the original) can be found on his Nirvana EP and is easily the best thing he's recorded. His voice is magnificent yet subjected to massive over-production (Safe With Me is particularly baffling). So, the world may be out in front of him but an album is in the waiting to test his talents.

I'm all in favour of the BBC promoting and showcasing young British talent but the absence of bands this year is a real worry. Haim won last year so I can't complain too much...

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

BBC Sound of 2014 - The Longlist

The BBC Sound of 2014 Longlist has been announced and the top 5 artists will be revealed in the next couple of days.

The longlist is:
  • Banks
  • Chance The Rapper
  • Chloe Howl
  • Ella Eyre
  • FKA Twigs
  • George Ezra
  • Jungle
  • Kelela
  • Luke Sital-Singh
  • MNEK
  • Nick Mulvey
  • Royal Blood
  • Sam Smith
  • Sampha
  • Say Lou Lou
The list is heavy on solo artists with only one 'band', the duo Royal Blood. Arguably Say Lou Lou and Jungle can be tenuously added but that is about it...2014 is all about 'individuals'.

The stand-out talent in this year's fifteen is the brilliant Luke Sital-Singh with a trio of impressive EPs: Tornados, Old Flint and Fail For You. His vocals and songwriting skills from 2013 are clear to see. The gorgeous angelic soundscapes of Say Lou Lou also impress although their back catalogue is limited, while Sampha shows promise with Dual. Sam Smith is an incredible vocalist but the songs have yet to appear.

Royal Blood, George Ezra and Nick Mulvey stand-out as everyone else falls into the same category: over-produced, unemotional R&B. Banks adds a dark edge and Chloe Howl brings the ladette charm (No Strings is excellent) but it's all very uninspired this year.