Friday, 18 December 2009

Dec. 17th: Dancing little marionette, are you happy now?

Ryan Adams-Gold (Lost Highway,2001)

Gold is Ryan Adam's second solo album, after 2000's Heartbreaker. It was meant to be a double album but isn't, condensed onto a single disc (and a limited 5 track bonus side/CD) in order to allow the record label to pay him less money. It still lasts over 70 minutes; at 16 tracks the initial impression when I listened to it was 'it's overlong', and it is. There are undoubtedly a lot of good songs here but about halfway through my mind began to wander. It appears you really can have too much of a good thing.
When Adams is good, he's very good- see for example the much-covered 'When The Stars Are Blue', 'Answering Bell', 'Somehow, Someday'. My tolerance for alt. country rock wavered at the nearly 10-minute-long 'Nobody Girl' the time 'Goodnight, Hollywood Blvd' rolled around I was pressing fastforward willing the Adams overdose to end. Which is a shame, really, because this is a genuinely great album, in small doses.

Dec. 16th: Turmoil! Carnage!

Bjork- Volta (One Little Indian, 2007)

I'll say it now. Mostly of the time I don't 'get' Bjork, past about 1993. Debut is great. I was 7 when Post came out and bought it on the strength of 'It's Oh So Quiet'...heh, yeah. Post was a surprise. Telegram isn't bad either....but Vespertine? Medulla? Nah, not my thing.Again, this was going for 8 euro in FNAC and I thought I'd listen to the reviews and buy it.
Volta is not going to make me into a Bjork fan. It was billed as 'poppy', 'accessible', but well, it's not. It just sounds angry. The sheer noise of it makes my head hurt.
This is an album full of collaborations- Timbaland, Antony Hegarty, etc etc. Timbaland + Bjork should = pop genius.It doesn't/ Out of their 3 collaborations, Innocence comes closest, but no cigar.
Hmm, I don't know what more I could say about Volta. If I had to sum it up: Brass! Tribal! Squelchy!

Sorry, Bjork. Maybe next time, eh?

Dec. 15th: The police always come late, if they come at all

Tracy Chapman- Tracy Chapman ( Elektra, 1988)

This was another 'going cheap in a French record shop' buy, which I mainly bought for 'Talkin' Bout A Revolution' and 'Fast Car'. Those two songs have been overplayed to the point where the meaning was lost to me, but listening properly to the lyrics for the first time reminds how good Chapman actually is. The folk influences are more obvious to me over a whole album, and it's clear that 'Talkin'...' and 'Fast Car' aren't even the best songs on the LP. That honour probably goes to either 'For My Lover' or the frankly un-nerving unaccompanied 'Behind The Wall' which relates a domestic violence situation through the eyes of the couple's neighbour. Utterly despairing but absolutely beautiful. This album was something of a pleasant surprise.

Dec. 14th: How do I know you feel it? How do I know it's true?

The Blue Nile-Hats (Linn Records, 1989)

The Blue Nile are a not-terribly-prolific (4 albums in nearly 30 years) Scottish band, who so impressed a non-record-releasing hifi company with their songs that they set up a label in order to release their music.
I love two Blue Nile songs- debut single 'I Love This  Life', which is bloody impossible to find in any kind of physical format; it's on a 2004 single currently going for silly money on eBay but that's it- and 'The Downtown Lights', which is on this LP. I've never actually managed to listen all the way through.
On first listen the album is exceedingly 80s. It's almost entirely electronic and chockablock with synths but hasn't dated badly at all. TDW is still brilliant and definitely the best thing here, but  there are songs of similar quality galore; 'Over The Hillside', 'Headlights On The Parade'...
With over half the songs being more than 5 minutes long, this isn't a particularly instant or commercial album, and it requires concentration, but it is a rewarding listen. A couple of uptempos break up any possible monotony; Paul Buchanan's voice tends to sound mournful no matter what he sings.
This got huge critical acclaim when it came out (e.g. 5 star Q magazine review) and I'd probably agree with that. For an album which came out an eternity ago in music terms, it bears up to scrutiny very well

Dec. 13th: A string of pearls goes on forever

 Les Rita Mitsouko- Variety (English Version) (Because Music, 2007)

Les Rita Mitsouko were one of the biggest alternative bands in France of the 80s; a duo of Fred Chichin and Catherine Ringer who first formed and played in various Parisian art spaces in the early 80s. They were active until Chichin died of cancer in 2007-this was the last album credited to the band, an English version of their previous 2007 album Variéty.
I am a big Catherine Ringer fan- more as a musician than as an occasional porn star, admittedly. To me, she's the French version of Annie Lennox: she has a strong, distinctive voice and personality, and just generally kicks ass. The English version of Variety doesn't do her justice, and isn't really a fitting legacy for Fred.

Musically, both versions aren't the best work LRM ever did. A bit heavy on the soft-rock, nowhere near as interesting as some of their earlier work. There are some great songs on the album though: 'Ding Dang Dong' and 'Ma Vielle Ville' particularly, I love- in the original language. Variety was the first LRM album recorded in an English version,and it shows. Lyrically it's somewhat lacking. 'Ding Dang Dong' becomes a straightforward party tune with no real emotion depth; 'Ma Vielle Ville' (retitled 'Paris (France)') changes from talking about homesickness and memory to what appears to be a musical advert for the Paris tourist board.  Also, in my view Ringer just sounds better in French, like she actually means what she's singing.

Variety isn't a bad album,but it's not particularly good either. The French original is much better, as the musical shortfalls are compensated for by the lyrics. If you were to get one, I'd get that, preferably. Or even better, get Catherine Ringer Chante Les Rita Mitsouko and More à La Cigale, her post-Fred live CD of LRM songs and appropriate covers. It contains all of the good songs on Variéty, in French, and with much more energy than on disc

Dec, 12th: hanging like Christmas stars, from a golden vein

Antony & The Johnsons- The Crying Light (Rough Trade, 2009)

 The Crying Light is Antony & The Johnsons' third record, the follow up to their 2005 breakthrough, I Am A Bird Now. I bought TCR off the back of that album's Mercury Prize nomination and general hype. I'm not sure about it, if I'm honest.
It may just be that it's an album to admire rather than enjoy. I can see the talent and the quality that's evident, but Antony Hegarty's voice seems to have one tone whether he's happy or sad, and the  constant tremolo is a bit of an acquired taste.
The focus of the album has shifted from I Am A Bird Now's almost autobiographical gender and identity-based songs to a broader, more environmental, nature-based feel (For example 'Another World' : "I need another world, this one's nearly gone...")  which is at least a change, although the overall feel of despair still pervades the whole thing.
Listening to this album is a bit like being in a German cabaret with a depressed Nina Simone. It's nice enough for one of two songs, but over a whole CD's worth of baroque pop and emotional piano tinkling it gets slightly wearing. 

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Press pause

Due to exams happening NOW and me being not terribly confident, I'm pausing this until the 18th. The CDs are listened-to, but I don't have the luxury of time to write them up til then. Sadface. But I'm not giving up,oh no siree Bob.
à bientôt...

Friday, 11 December 2009

Dec. 11th: Somehow, I smothered rainbows

Sebastien Tellier-L'Incroyable Vérité (Record Makers, 2001)

Sebastien Tellier reminds me of Rasputin. A French Rasputin admittedly, but still. I've just realised. I've never really 'got' his music, apart from 'La Ritournelle', his best-known song. He's French (the name might be a clue...), he's a friend of Air and he makes Air-ish music, and the occasional Eurovision entry. L'Incroyable Vérité (The Incredible Truth) is a mostly instrumental album of almost stereotypically French moody noodling. It's grouped into loose 'trilogies', has an arty cover and is probably aiming to be profound; listening to it all the way through brings to mind Elton John's 'Funeral For A Friend', except about 4 times as long, with some bossa nova trumpet. I'm predisposed against this sort of thing because personally, I hate pointless noodling. And that's what this album sounds like to me: It doesn't go anywhere and doesn't really suit active listening. Maybe I should have an arty dinner party and stick it on in the background, it might work better there. The one surprising thing about this record is the scream at the end; somebody gives birth about 7/8ths of the way through,loudly. That was unexpected.
Overall: meh. C'est mood music à la francaise, something Air and many others do better than this.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Dec, 10th:...y que poquito dinero me pagan por mi sudor

Afro-Cuban All Stars-Distinto, Diferente (World Circuit, 1999)

The All Stars are the project of Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, who was partly behind  Buena Vista Social  Club, and included many of the same musicians (Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén Gonzalez, Guajiro Mirabal). This is their second album, a follow-up to A Todo Cuba Le Gusta. The title is apt, since,well, different from their debut, seemingly aiming for a more pan-hispanic, crossover sound, more jazzy and with a lounge feel in places. The playing is still olympic and the talent undeniable, but it feels as if some of the rougher edges have been smoothed over; nothing here really matches their version of 'Amor Verdadero' for me. 'Al Vaivén De Mi Carreta' comes close,but no cigar.
The standout elements of what is a very good ensemble effort are, for me, Ferrer's wonderfully expressive voice and the lively trumpet of Guajiro Mirabal. Buy Distinto... by all means, but buy A Todo... and BVSC at the same time, to experience just how good these musicians can be.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Dec. 9th: Ne te mouche pas dans ma robe, pas cette fois. Relève-toi...

Cali- L'amour Parfait (Labels, 2004)

 Cali is a French singer and erstwhile rugby player, who'd been in various punk and alternative bands before releasing this, his first solo album, in 2004. The album's big hit, 'Elle M'a Dit' (She Told Me) is still being played on the radio, 5 years later. It was everywhere last year; I couldn't go to a supermarket without hearing it over the PA. There's a reason it was the album's biggest hit; it's by far the best song  here. The rest of it is pretty much your standard French-language chanson-influenced  adult pop; Cali's voice is pleasant, there are bits of viola and saxophone to inject a little bit of personality, it sounds like he's been listening to a lot of Radio 2.  It's not awful, it's perfectly passable, but there are 1001 French singers doing the same thing. If the lyrics were at the level of the chanson music he claims as an influence, this would be lovely. But they're the usual 'I love you, you don't love me, occasional French existential metaphor, I am so lonely without you' and therefore the album's stuck with James Morrison and Katie Melua as competition.
On the other hand, musically 'Le Grand Jour' is basically a baroque piano prelude followed by a great Handel-esque string arrangement, and 'Fais De Moi Ce Que Tu Veux' is orchestrated very well, again with a great string section.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Dec, 8th: I was lonely 'til I found the reason; the reason was me

Felt- Stains On A Decade (Cherry Red,2003)

This was another indie-fresher-you-have-to-hear-this purchase, on the same day as the Pastels CD, and again,  one which sounds much better 4 years down the line.  Felt were effectively the project of one man, Lawrence (no surname was ever given on their record sleeves), who released 10 albums and 10 singles in 10 years, then disbanded. Possibly the 1980s' definitive cult indie band, they released on both Cherry Red and Creation, moving back to Cherry Red after Creation were unable to release their final album until 1990, which would have messed up the 10 year masterplan. Stains On A Decade is a compilation of their singles and B-sides from both labels, which handily traces the changing styles of the band on one CD, from baroque pop to acid-jazz inflected pieces via jangly indie. It includes Primitive Painters, featuring Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Frazer, probably the band's most well-known track, Penelope Tree, Ballad Of The Band and many others.
Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian is a Felt fan, and it's possible to hear similarities between his and Lawrence's vocal styles- and the 'one man's band' idea which applied initially to both B&S and Felt.
Stains On A Decade is a pretty much essential buy for anyone interested in 80s indie or fey, intricate pop in general.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Dec. 7th: Look around for someone lying in the sunshine

Pentangle- Basket Of Light (Transatlantic, 1969)

Basket Of Light was Pentangle's most commercially successful album, largely due to the use of 'Light Flight' as the theme tune of 70s BBC drama  Take Three Girls. 'Light Flight' opens the album and has one of the best intros to a folk song I've ever heard. Time signatures all over the place, jazz inflections: amazing. The rest of the album is just as good- sitar solos! Train imitations! Bowed bass! . There are so many 'high points' of Pentangle, Jacqui McShee's voice, Bert and John's playing, the rhythm section- that the description becomes a bit meaningless, because it's all good. A definite classic folk album.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Dec. 6th; This state of emergency; how beautiful to be

Rory Campbell-Intrepid (Vertical,2007)

Rory Campbell is a Scottish piper, singer and songwriter. He's played in a fair number of current Scottish folk bands: Old Blind Dogs, Deaf Shepherd (see what they did there?), The Big Spree, etc. Intrepid is a mix of traditional Gaelic songs given the modern fusion treatment, traditional and modern pipe and whistle tunes, self-penned songs and something else we'll get to in a minute.
Of the songs, there is a nicely-done version of 'Oran Nan Mogaisean' (Song Of The Mocassins), where a man sings the praises of his (badly made) shoes, and two English songs, of which 'Dreams' would fit nicely into any Radio 2 or adult contemporary playlist.  The tunes, including some written for his son and wife, flow over an effective acoustic-guitar-and- percussion backing; I'm not a piper so I can't comment on the technically proficiency, but it sounds great to me.
And then I read the tracklist. Track 5: Joga. It can't be the Bjork song, can it? Well, actually, it can. A Scottish folk musician singing a song by an Icelandic female pop star. It shouldn't work, but it does, and quite successfully too, turning it into a laidback acoustic ballad which Campbell's voice suits well.
It's the most surprising thing about Intrepid. A seeming disparate mix of pipe tunes old and new, English original songs, traditional Gaelic (and Bjork) shouldn't go together, but this collection does

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Dec. 5th: F.N., souffrance, qu'on est bien en France

Noir Désir- 666.667 Club (Barclay, 1996)

French rock is awful, right? The French have a reputation for their recent pop music being almost uniformly dire-and by recent i mean anything from about 1971 to the present. Most of the time, this reputation isn't entirely deserved. The language barrier is definitely to blame- a lot of French music focuses on the quality of the lyrics far more than the English equivalent would, but if you don't understand them, it doesn't matter how brilliant they are. Noir Désir (Black Desire) are probably France's premier rock band, have been active for decades and now have a rock'n' roll scandal to go with that: their frontman Bernard Cantat has just been released from prison, after serving time for murdering his girlfriend as the result of an argument.

666.667 Club went double platinum in France, and was very well received. In addition to the basic grunge template, there are gypsy violins and free jazz saxophone, amongst other things. In my opinion the band are at their best in their more politically or culturally aware songs, such as 'Un Jour En France', ridiculing the adulation of a golden-age postwar France ('les trentes années glorieuses' of modern French history) which never really was, and the slow rise of fascism (particularly that of the National Front, or F.N.) which was beginning at the time of this album. Perhaps tellingly, much of the criticism in a song which is almost 14 years old still applies to France today.
The slightly redundant English-language track which seemed to be obligatory at the time is indeed present; 'Prayer For A Wanker' (or 'woncur' as it ends up) but overall this is a very good album, musically tight and lyrically dextrous, and it even has one properly good English track, 'Lazy'. 'Un Homme Pressé' and 'Un Jour...' are the best songs by far but there is plenty here worth investigating.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Dec. 4th: And all for no reason, just one piece of lead

Johnny Cash- American IV: The Man Comes Around (American, 2002)

The fourth of Cash's collaborations with Rick Rubin, The Man Comes Around is a mix of carefully chosen covers,  a couple of originals and some re-recordings of  older Cash songs (1957's 'Streets Of Laredo', 'Sam Hall'). The title track is a new song which came from a dream Johnny had involving the Book Of Revelations, the four horses of the Apocalypse and Queen Elizabeth II, as you do. Of the covers, some of the most potentially disastrous work best: here 'Danny Boy 'is almost enough to make you forget the myriad heinous Daniel O' Donnell (and sub-Daniel O' Donnell...) versions; just Cash and a pipe organ, and nothing else. 'Bridge Over Troubled Water,' featuring Fiona Apple doesn't quite match the original but almost, nearly makes it.
'I Hung My Head', from Sting's original, shows Cash's talent as a storyteller; the tension is racheted up to an emotional climax, where you almost feel as much for the criminal as for the victim.
The CD's crowning achievement, however, is the cover of Nine Inch Nails' 'Hurt'. Given Cash's history of addiction, it's one song he's entitled to sing, and he injects an affecting pathos into a song already full of pain and self-disgust. It's enough to put anyone off drugs for life.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Dec. 3rd: If I wish upon a star, take you just the way you are

The Pastels-Up For A Bit With... (Fire Records, 1991/2002)

The Pastels are Scottish indie legends, a cult band who've operated under the radar for various labels and with various lineups since 1982. This record, originally released in 1986, has one of the earlier incarnations.
It's been in my collection for a few years, since I came up to Glasgow Uni as a Fresher and someone said 'you like Belle & Sebastian? You have to buy these records', of which Up For A Bit...was one. I listened the first track with my fresher's ears and thought 'dear God, the production's all sludgy' and put it away. I was wrong. I finally got to see the Pastels live on Friday night and they were great. Up For A Bit... includes Pastels classics like 'Crawl Babies', 'Get 'Round Town' and the brilliant 'Baby Honey'. The band are typical of c86, 'shamblepop' indie, accompanying Stephen Pastel (né McRobbie)'s laid-back vocals. The production is of its time but there are some great songs, and the album is a good introduction to the Pastels' fairly large and wideranging (it now includes film soundtracks, remix album and other projects) work.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Dec. 2nd: Salut Les Copains!

Various Artists: Sixties Girls Vol. 1 (Magic Records, 1998

This is a cheap French repackaging of four 1960s yéyé EPs by various French girl singers, of whom the best known by some margin is Françoise Hardy. Yéyé is a musical style originating from 1960s France in response to nascent American youth culture and rock and roll. There are numerous conventions which usually pop up; for example choral backing vocals, brushed drums,  French language adaptations of English hits, and fairly interchangeable singers with few writing credits to their name (the exception is Hardy, who has far transcended her yéyé beginnings).
The songs here, 16 plus a bonus track of the theme tune and jingles to 'Salut Les Copains' , one of the first French youth programmes- are all pretty much archetypal examples of high-quality yéyé, particularly Christine Lebail's 'Les Livres d'École' and 'L'an prochain sur la plage' and Christine Delaroche's 'La Porte à Coté'. All very good for dancing to and singing along-whether you know French or not.
The only slight disappointment, ironically, is Françoise Hardy's contributions; all English versions of her French hits when her English pronounciation was 'interesting'-far inferior to the originals. These serve as a terrible introduction to her work in general, most useful for trying to decode what's she's singing (e.g. 'I'm asking zee stars up a bow'). The widely available Vogue Years compilation contains all her songs here in their original forms and far more of some of the best music of its type, and of France in general.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Dec.1st: I dig the Stones, you dig 'Sheer Heart Attack'

Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan- Sunday at Devil Dirt (US Edition) (Fontana 2008)

I'm a big Belle & Sebastian fan; however I'm a post-Isobel Campbell B&S fan. I first came across the band on 2003's Dear Catastrope Waitress, after Campbell had left, and I personally don't think the band are any poorer without her. I've always found her voice too light for my tastes-and I found the one solo album I own, The Green Fields of Foreverland, slightly too sugary and twee.
However, the combo of Campbell with ex-Screaming Tree Mark Lanegan offered something unexpected and original, and their first collaboration, Ballad Of The Broken Seas (2006) was a pleasant surprise. Sparse, dusty Americana, two disparate voices which somehow complemented each other.
....Devil Dirt is essentially, more of the same, with an expanded sound (organs; a gospel choir and jazz-bar piano outro on 'Back Burner'). Anyone hoping to hear lots of Isobel will be disappointed; the majority of leads are sung by Lanegan, Campbell mostly having a background role of arranger,backing vocalist and songwriter (all songs but one are her originals). On the Fontana edition, several bonus tracks are added, many of which were added to a subsequent EP in the UK, and these bonus tracks are some of the strongest songs on the record, particularly the comparitively danceable 'Hang On'.
Overall, ...Devil Dirt seems a weaker album than Ballads of The Broken Sea, possibly because the partnership's element of surprise  has worn off. In parts it seems more like a Mark Lanegan solo effort than a collaboration.