29 April 2009

Review: St Vincent - Actor

Originally published at TLOBF

“Alas! When passion is both meek and wild!” John Keats once wrote. It’s the epigraph that Richard Yates, that great chronicler of the darker side of the American suburban dream, used to introduce Revolutionary Road, and it’s no less befitting an overture for St Vincent’s second record, ‘Actor’. For all Annie Clark’s doe-eyed physical delicacy and gentle vocals, there’s a fiercely shredded guitar riff and distorted beat that heads straight to the jugular, uprooting the white picket fences of the domesticity where she lays her less than rosy scene. Conceived by watching films such as The Wizard of Oz and Disney’s Sleeping Beauty on mute and reimagining their soundtracks, the follow up to 2007’s ‘Marry Me’ eloquently negotiates the narrative arc of a relationship in freefall to the tune of a glorious orchestra redolent of Paul J. Smith’s work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

But despite all of Annie’s humbleness, and self-dismissing as “a wife in watercolours” easily washed away on ‘Save Me From What I Want’, this is a record in full Technicolor that demands your attention; it’s impossible to work to, to ignore it when you’re in the room together, and blasphemously futile to try and use as background ambience, taking you back to what seem like ancient times where a whole afternoon could be passed just laying on your bed, wallowing in a record. Every second of music and quirk of vocal tone implies a nuance that goes beyond what’s being said, whether the acute kindly reprimand of a former lover, again on ‘Save Me…’, whose fuzzy percussion skips like Dick Van Dyke as she sings, “Honey what reveals you / Is what you try to hide away”, or during ‘The Party’, soul destroying with its soaring “oohing” chorus, where she exposes the rigmarole at the heart of social engagement that April and Frank Wheeler no doubt knew well – “Oh that’s the trouble / With ticking and talking”.
Whilst the lyrics to ‘Actor’ remain often sombre, its chamber pop sensibilities mixed with King Crimson style guitar gravel bring it firmly into the realms of euphoria. ‘Laughing With a Mouth of Blood” is mindblowingly sexy (though it feels crass to call it so), as what sounds like whale magic chimes into the lines “Just like an amnesiac / Trying to get my senses back” melting from her lips over a grimy drum beat, before singing, “Laughing with a mouth of blood / From a little spill I took”. When was the last time you heard someone take a “spill” in a pop song?! The charm offensive continues with single ‘Actor Out of Work’, where she takes control, belittling whoever’s wronged her with saccharine vehemence, a contrapuntal mix of her sweet aria and stinging guitars that act as the choric illumination for ‘Marrow’ - if when December comes there’s been a better riff, I’ll eat my proverbial hat, shorts and ears. In fact, I can hardly bring my fingers to the keyboard to write about just how good it is - they’re too busy dancing to this ecstatic mix of load, shoot and fire dirtiness, all razor sharp filthy guitar and melodica exuberance atop oscillating shimmer. Kanye West is going to be all over it.
It really wouldn’t be hard to wax lyrical for a dissertation’s length about the sheer brilliance of this album. There’s not a dull note or word out of place, and the only annoying thing about it is how consistently perfect Annie Clark manages to be (she’s far too sweet to tread on even the tiniest nerve), but to detail them all would deprive you of the pleasures of discovering them yourself. She’s not nearly hubristic enough for this lyric to be intentionally self-referential, but when on ‘Save Me From What I Want’ she sings, “the future’s got big plans for me”, you can only hope that’s an understatement. Flawless.

27 April 2009

Review: Fink, Gomez, O2 Academy, Bristol 26.04.09

Musicians like Newton Faulkner are bad enough for any number of reasons (let’s cite his cover of the Spongebob Squarepants theme tune as primary evidence), but when they succeed over far more talented artists from the same genre, all hatred borne toward them can be fully justified. Case in point: the lovely Fink (aka Cornish-born Fin Greenall), who bears the same luscious, woodsy guitar style and soulful voice (at a deeper timbre), but executes the two with a dark vocal intensity that contrasts beautifully with his relaxing instrumentation (which on this balmy Sunday evening is just two guitars; no band). A distracted frown crosses his brow on ‘Blueberry Pancakes’, as he sings, “everyone else is secondary, everyone else is temporary”, ostensibly about a departed lover, and proves that acoustic guitar-toting folkies needn’t just sing about the surf and good times with the bluesy ‘Sorry I’m Late’, his voice blistering at “she fucks me while the sun goes down”. “I’m nervous because the guy who inspired me to play guitar is stood over there,” he worries, but he needn’t. Especially considering the arrival of Gomez. 

Despite looking astoundingly youthful for a band in their thirteenth year, every other aspect of their set sounds so dated in its embarrassing pub rock predictability that it’s a chore to watch. ‘Whipping Piccadilly’ rattles its de facto groove, but their new material is atrociously boring, and not at all helped by singer and keyboardist Tom Gray goading the crowd into eliciting praise, though the audience seems to think differently – there’s many a couple smooching to the slowies, and reminiscing back to the halcyon days of 1998 when ‘Bring It On’ came out, and they’d never heard Newton Faulkner butchering ‘Teardrop’. Probably.

26 April 2009

Review: Hanne Hukkelberg – Blood from a Stone

Originally published at TLOBF

To say that ‘Blood From a Stone’ conjures soundscapes where Bat For Lashes’ moody beats meets Grouper’s ethereal swathe coated in the glow of Beach House’s sexy haze makes it sound like a much more exciting proposition than it really is. All these similarities are hugely palpable in Norwegian Hukkelberg’s third album, but the problem is that they’re executed with such minimal panache and effort that it’s a chore to make yourself listen all the way through.

The majority of songs have exactly the same structure – verses based around a facile programmed drumbeat, cheeping synths that sounds as though they were made on Brian Eno’s iPhone application, Bloom, some incoherent mewing and inconsequential choruses so dull that even her backing singers sound like they’re falling asleep (case in point – ‘No Mascara Tears’). It’s a baffling concept, but ‘Seventeen’ sounds exactly like Kelly Rowland’s ‘Stole’ (remember, the one about teenage suicide?) put through Tegan and Sara’s synthesizers. Don’t believe me? Try Rowland’s lyrics for size – “the brightest kid in school / He’s not a fool / Reading books about science and smart stuff” – and then Hukkelberg’s – “He didn’t fit in at school / The stupid rules / Made him a fool”, later singing about taking “the easy way out”. It’s unwittingly funny, and a perversely welcome lift halfway through a largely dull record.

The frustrating thing is that there are a few good songs on here, and condensed thus it’d make a promising EP. Opener ‘Midnight Sun Dreams’ does TLOBF the very kind job of reviewing itself in its title – it’s every bit as sensual as you’d imagine, with her voice flaring gently amidst an ebb and flow of the disquieted sleep patterns a Norwegian summer must bring. The way she sings, “I’m no temptress” makes for a reaction of lust at odds with aching beauty that makes you realize what The National were on about when they sang of a “feathery woman” on the incredible ‘Mistaken for Strangers’, so it’s a shame she can’t maintain the allure throughout. ‘Bandy Riddles’ builds to a climax where Grizzly Bear’s rhythm section meets the cathartic yells of Camille, and in the celestial closing number, ‘Bygd Til By’, the only song here in her mother tongue, she lets the mysterious (to us at least) lyrics roll deliciously from her lips. Less than a month after the release of Bat For Lashes’ ‘Two Suns’, however, you probably don’t need this in your record collection.


24 April 2009

Review: Earth @ The Croft, Bristol, 23.04.09

Originally published at TLOBF

“This is about how you get a medical condition where you can’t look at flashing lights, so lift your glass to your favourite method of self-destruction,” jokes Dylan Carlson before Steve ‘Stebmo’ Moore plays the fateful opening salvo of ‘Engine of Ruin’. Judging by the submissive head bowing and enraptured half-shut eyes of the audience, it’d seem that the preferred road to aural wreckage of everyone present is letting Earth attack their ears with their dismal grace and perturbing volume; like the slow erosion of Chinese water torture. This is one of those gigs that’s so close and impending that it’s left down to booming exhalations from the amplifiers to act as air conditioning for the night; despite Moore’s Wurlitzer blooming a lazy song beneath Carlson’s judgment gavel of a guitar, each note is so elongated and weighty that even contemplation begins to feel like physical exertion, so the occasional blasts of oxygen are gratefully received.

Their six-year hiatus not included, this year and tour mark the 20th anniversary of Earth, and they’re on fine form. To call them forceful, dark and hypnotic would be a crass understatement of their intensity - as they burn slowly through the embers of ‘The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull’ the emotional autonomy of the audience is lost to what feels like an ancient brainwashing ritual, Carlson excavates the protracted depths of ‘Miami Morning Coming Down II’ like he’s after Howard Carter’s prestige, and the Croft’s ceiling tiles give up their hold and tumble to the floor. Neither drummer Adrienne Davies nor Carlson bats an eyelid. ‘Bees…’ vinyl bonus track ‘Junkyard Priest’ raises the set’s brontide to a more aggressive level, with Stebmo taking on trombone duties to flesh out the night’s sleepy dynamic, and to recover a little soul just when it starts to feel like you’re watching a band in slow motion. The same pounding rant appears in an as-yet untitled new song in E flat minor (simultaneously frustrating and gratifying for fans, it’s the only non-‘Bees…’ track they play tonight). Playing with the resounding motifs from what will become its predecessor, it takes a more passive-aggressive turn of events, refusing to satisfy neat crescendos or cyclical melodies with a petulance so ear-ravishing that all you can do is raise your glass as high as you can, and weather the storm.

22 April 2009

Review: Soap&Skin - Lovetune for Vacuum

Originally published on The Line of Best Fit

Don’t let the soft, scented domesticity of Anja Plaschg’s stage moniker or album title fool you; ‘Lovetune for Vacuum” is a mournful Frankenstein of a record – a young woman attempting to come to terms with the often twisted depths of her own feelings by imprisoning them within a fortress of ticking shutter sounds and mandrake violins. With a beguiling voice pitched somewhere between Anthony and Karin Dreijer Andersson (Fever Ray/The Knife), 18 year old Plaschg (who grew up on a rural pig farm in her native Austria) cuts an emotionally bruised, shadowy figure on her extraordinarily precocious debut.

At the heart of the record is a shy, elegantly mechanical android, that ticks and whirrs with the sounds of typewriters, camera clicks and children’s toys, gradually expanding and dominating with each song. On the childlike ‘Cry Wolf’, it cowers reticently behind a background of Múm style vocals and a naïve flute, but gathers strength by ‘Turbine Womb’ (the lyrics can be a little sci-fi Sylvia Plath, but impressive for a second language) to sound like Optimus Prime doing the ballet; indeed, Plaschg’s strengths reach far beyond the stereotype of the quirky musical ingénue to join Peter Broderick, Hauschka and Max Richter as part of the exciting European scene of young classical protégés, such is her impressive piano work. Come the penultimate track, ‘DDMMYYYY’, the machine is fully-fledged, as industrial and aggressive as Leila or any of Richard D James’ Warp brethren as it drowns out a woman’s crazed histrionics – it’s no surprise that both Fenessz and DJ Koze have remixed her.

In parts, this is a terrifying record, and you can only imagine what it’s like to be her parents – an unpredictable raven haired pearl looming from the shadows of farmhouses in her press photos, even crouched naked amongst the pigs; with tortured scientific lyrics about the Greek daemon of death (‘Thanatos’, not dissimilar to the rousing layered vocals of Electrelane’s ‘The Valleys’) through to the slightly sixth form poetry words of ‘Extinguish Me’ (“I search in snow, in vain / For your footsteps’ trail / I have to kiss them / With my scalding tears”) and childhood pain (‘Spiracle’). It’s not always a pleasure to listen to, particularly as the tangle of piano and icy church intonations of ‘Fall Foliage’ rumble into that familiar elegant clunk of clockwork and whirrs, but it’s to her credit that she rides the motif through to the end of the record, and proves its worth – her bleak electronic dystopia could easily soundtrack Watchmen or similar. If this is how she sings ‘Lovetunes…’, heaven help us when she turns her pen to less starry-eyed subject matter.


20 April 2009

Review: Alessi's Ark - Notes from the Treehouse

Originally featured at The Line of Best Fit

Despite the wandering loveliness of 18 year old Alessi Laurent-Marke’s debut album, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want other people to hear it. And not for reasons of selfishness or wanting to be cooler than thou – rather the desire to protect her, to tuck her and the swooping warmth of her voice away from a press that’ll to turn her into the next poster girl for an untapped genre; to save her from the potential ignominious fate of a major label getting her to make the same album over and over until the cash cow’s bled dry and all inspiration stifled; to keep her away from the naysayers who’ll nitpick at her for being an arcane young Londoner with tangible influences that unabashedly bob their pretty heads above the surface of ‘Notes From the Tree House’.

Fortunately or unfortunately, whichever way you look at it, with an album this strong there’s absolutely no chance of it staying under the radar – especially when you consider that she walked straight out of senior school with her GCSE Music compositions and into the arms of EMI, and Saddle Creek rabble rouser Mike Mogis. It’s a worry from the first song, ‘Magic Weather’, that the soaring weight of ornate instrumentation befitting of Van Dyke Parks might overwhelm Alessi – the strings pop up in nooks and crannies, and reveal themselves sparkle by sparkle to be a vast Narnia of wonderment - but she coolly holds her own amongst the perhaps over-lavish production, smoothing out inconsistent vocal ticks to eventually swoon like Alela Diane or Nina Nastasia.

This could come across as patronizing, but considering that most of the recent soup of young singers are possessed with a gift for lyrics that makes Twitter look profound, Alessi’s Ark deal an impressive hand in succinct, measured wistfulness that can’t help but raise a smile – on ‘Over the Hill’ she sings, ”I know we’ll get there eventually / but I’m English, so bear with me” with dreamy sagacity, and rolls through the hazy lullaby of ‘Constellations’, turning “she loves you, yes she does” into “Hell I’m in love with you, yes it’s true”, conjuring the beautiful, all-engulfing moment of being magnetized by the face of a hoped-for lover.

‘Notes From the Tree House’ isn’t a perfect album, but what use would that be? The most pertinent comparison in terms of early ability would be to Cat Power – but whereas Chan Marshall developed her often difficult angst into lustrous showmanship, it’d be lovely to see Alessi go the other way, and steer this polished sunrise into even more experimental territory. Little pockets of eerie sonogram echoes and dissonant film dialogue hide below the record’s surface like buried treasure, proving that Alessi is more than capable of keeping her own secrets.


Review: PJ Harvey & John Parish, Bristol Anson Rooms, 18.04.09

Originally featured on The Line of Best Fit and Epigram

There’s a terrifying stillness about PJ Harvey. At the end of each song, it’s as if a dark shadow has imprisoned her in celluloid, before the shutter release of John Parish’s tremendous guitar again liberates her diabolical wide-eyed rapture, gesticulating and wild in eldritch white. The three straitjacket-esque straps around her chiffon-swathed legs cannot contain her, as black heels occluding alabaster ankles dance in tongues around the defenceless boards of the Anson Rooms.

If this all sounds a little overblown, it’s because there aren’t words nuanced or physical enough to express the intense bliss evoked this evening. Yeah, we could steal some of Polly and John’s own, like the sumptuous, “you move me, like music” from ‘Rope Bridge Crossing’ off ‘Dance Hall at Louse Point’, but they wouldn’t be nearly as devastating as when emitted from red lips to lie on the nail bed of Parish’s awkward flinching guitar, and Künstlicher's no cuckoo.

Playing in support of their second album together in 13 years, PJ, John and their regular band of collaborators might look foreboding in their respective ghostly moll and gangster ensembles, but, just as on record, tonight’s performance is the sight of two old friends having fun, dismissing the common perception of them as serious artistes drowning in the gravitas of their craft. Single ‘Black Hearted Love’ is all visceral guitar and silky, butter-wouldn’t-melt rhetoric that’s the perfect contrast to wonderful surprise support act Howe Gelb’s (of Giant Sand) gravelly acoustic drawl, and snaps into ‘Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen’, whereby Harvey’s meticulously controlled voice hops from craggy wails to staccato counting, a cliff top siren call and girlish hiccoughing. The five of them lead an exquisitely balanced set, dipping into ‘The Soldier’, whose words hang like a tangled marionette over Parish’s childlike yet demented ukulele.

Despite unabashed dancing, inquisitive birdlike looks to John on her left, and a neat red grin a million miles from the Joker-ish make-up of her ‘To Bring You My Love’ era, at this stage it’s still hard to believe that this almost translucent woman has either the dint or desire to let forth the raw whoops of their oeuvre’s more scabrous works. However, with ‘Taut’, Harvey inflicts mirth and mild apprehension upon the audience as she spits “Even the son of God had to die my darlin’” like Pazuzu by way of Dorset, but curtails the outburst before embodying madness that’d see Mr Rochester hunting out the ladder to the attic hatch.

The only downside to letting PJ Harvey mesmerize you into forgetting that you’re stood in the dingy Anson Rooms (which have all the charm of a rotting grammar school gymnasium) is that it’s sometimes hard to remember to snap out of it to appreciate the astounding work of her dapper bandmates. In matching trilbies and suits (and pianist, bassist and guitarist Eric Drew Feldman’s shiny red brogues deserve a mention too), they look as though they’ve just stepped out of the Coen Brothers’ ‘Miller’s Crossing’, and sound just as ominous.

“I have another story to tell you,” says Harvey, polite as a school mistress, before wreaking prurient havoc on the crowd with ‘A Woman A Man Walked By’ – every time she roars “I want his fucking ass!”, she jerks her own derriere, howling like a castrated werewolf, and dancing through John and Giovanni’s exorcism of a guitar solo with vigour that belies her maraca-induced shoulder injury.

The night seems fleeting, and the final song comes all too soon. After a thirteen year break between albums, it’ll most likely be at least as long again, if ever, before the next one; a thought as disquieting as the shadowy stillness that engulfs the rocking chair creak of ‘April’.

1 April 2009

Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard - 'Em Are I

Originally featured in NME 15/04/09

What with New York’s most idiosyncratic neurotic upping sticks to Europe for his past few films, Manhattan musician and illustrator Jeffrey Lewis has stepped in to chronicle the detritus of the human condition for his amicable fifth full length album. To fans, the majority of this lovingly crumpled bundle of nerves will be happily familiar from Lewis’ self-flagellating live schedule, as wearily explored on ‘Roll Bus Roll’, an unapologetically downbeat ditty about Greyhound buses, cheered on by a frayed backseat choral line and a picaresque ukulele that reignites the joyful spontaneity of touring. Lewis peeps through warmly looping guitar layers at anxious existentialism on ‘If Life Exists?’, and self-deprecates with ‘Broken Broken Broken Heart’, all handclap-propelled rollicking ‘60s pop which belies its bitter sentiment, and ‘To Be Objectified’ (“going bald is the most manly thing I’m ever going to do”). Meanwhile, ‘Whistle Past the Graveyard’ resurrects the madcap hyperactivity of ‘Systematic Death’ (off the album ’12 Crass Songs’) to quack and cluck with banjo-led insanity through the realms of the zombiefied absurd. His comic book sensibilities burst from the record with technicolour verve, particularly as the titular erudite swine of ‘Good Old Pig, Gone to Avalon’ wiggles with Muppet-like bounciness to the Arthurian city. But no comic book hero is complete without his trusty sidekick – Jeff’s brother Jack plays bass throughout, and wrote ‘The Upside-down Cross’, a torrid, eight minute song about marriage and ecology where Calexico race Do Make Say Think up a mountain only to find that Sonic Youth have beaten them to the top. With the Brothers Lewis’ dry delivery, worry of impending baldness and mounting collection of romantic woes, it seems that Woody Allen needn’t bother going home.