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Saturday, 30 June 2012

Bright Eyes - Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

My fourth venture into the world of Conor Oberst and although easily the least accessible so far, this is yet another great album. It's a complex feast of lyricism and musicality that takes a little hard work to fully appreciate, and I've got to say after the first couple of listens I thought it was awful. But as is usually the case with decent albums, repeated listens illustrated the beauty and artistry in these songs, with the word-play and vocal delivery particularly standing out.

Conor is another of those artists out there who are definitely ploughing their own furrow. Each of his albums could not be mistaken for anyone else, but each one still has a presence and individuality all of its own. Digital Ash is less folky, less organic and less immediate than I'm Wide Awake. It's more urban, electronic and soundscaped than the standard offering, but the words still flow with a ease and fluidity of a natural talent.

There's a real pain in these lyrics. You could argue there is always underlying pain in his narratives, however this pain is more overt. He's confused, empty, hollow and at times bitter, but as always there's that distant sparkle of hope hidden in all that introspection. The highlights come thick and fast, but the standout tracks for me are the surprisingly jaunty 'Hit the Switch', the hauntingly catchy 'Devil in the Details', and the baby crying fun of 'Ship in a Bottle'.

If you don't already love Bright Eyes, it's not the best of starting points. However if I'm preaching to the converted, then it's definitely one for your Amazon list and an acerbic little titbit to look forward to.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Magnetic Fields - i LP

What is it?
Stephin Merritt's Magnetic Fields justify their reputation as a quality pop combo with 2004's 'i' album, where interestingly all the tracks begin with the letter 'i'.

Why should you listen?
After being seriously under-whelmed by the 3 discs of '69 Love Songs' and disappointed by their homage to the Jesus and Mary Chain; 'Distortion', I was not hopeful for this particular outing of Boston, Massachusetts' finest. My perseverance was rewarded however, as the LP sandwiched between the aforementioned is altogether more my saucer of rat poison. It's hard to describe the genre but it's possibly best described as orchestral chamber pop, although folk pop and indie pop may be equally appropriate. It's Merritt's lyrics that turn this collection into something special, with his ironic and oblique descriptions of love, all gliding along on an effortless soundtrack that refuses to leave your head. The synth-pop numbers are particularly welcome such as 'I thought you were my boyfriend' and these contrast perfectly against the acoustic cello driven tracks like 'I looked all over town'. At times bizarre and annoying, but at other times a work of genius.

What's it like?
It's like a philosophy in music form.

What's the best song?
'I Don't Really Love You Anymore' is the saddest song you'll ever hear.

Who does it sound like?
The Divine Comedy, Parenthetical Girls, Momus

Monday, 25 June 2012

Let's Buy Happiness - Fast Fast

Pick of the Week 7 - Let's Buy Happiness - Fast Fast

Like some 21st Century reincarnation of the Sundays, Let's Buy Happiness are difficult not to like. They hail from Newcastle and there's also a smattering of the Cocteaus, Altered Images, the Sugarcubes and Bang Bang Machine evident in their work. Essentially, what's not to like?

Throw in an attractive fur lined anorak and you've got me hooked. They look absolutely freezing in the video as they shamble about on what could be the North Yorkshire Moors, but I love the Andy Goldsworthyesque clips of the natural world with some lovely arty focus effects. If they'd arranged some sheep's wool across the top 50 yards of dry stone wall it would have been perfection. Imagine if Goldsworthy ever got to direct a pop video!

Seriously though, this is a great song and I've listened to it literally hundreds of times this year. I'm now sampling their back catalogue and hopefully there's an album in the pipeline soon.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Mahala Rai Banda - Ghetto Blasters

This is a work of genius. It's almost literally a cousin of the Romanian fiddling master-class of Taraf de Haidouks, but the violins are supplemented with a whole band of tooting horns and combined with atmospheric vocalists. It's an intoxicating combination and there's no wonder they are famous across Europe for turning every concert and wedding into a wild and raucous party.

The CD cover has a wealth of information: Apparently, all the most gifted musicians come from just two villages in Romania. It's a little like the idea of the original 'Ginger Village' in Scotland from which all us ginger folk evolved, but for musicians in this case. All the greatest violinists, cymbalists, double bass and accordion players come from Clejani, to the South of Bucharest, and it was here that Taraf de Haidouks was formed. Likewise in Zece Prajini, to the North East of Bucharest, is where all the best woodwind and brass players reside, with their own horn based combo, Fanfare Ciocarlia. It was indeed a stroke of genius then, when Aurel Ionita combined musicians from both villages to form the super group of Roma pop, Mahala Rai Banda. As the blurb on the CD states;

"It is in these two villages, lost in the dust, the mud or the ice, according to the season, that you find the creme de la creme, the kings of the rogues, the instrumentalists who are half genius, half rascal, capable of stirring up a wedding party with a single solo launched at supersonic speed."

It works amazing well with a unique blend of fiddling and tooting producing a massive sound of orchestral proportions. It's instantly more accessible than the brilliant Taraf de Haidouks, but similarly possesses a range of levels and subtleties, that are noticeable after repeated listens. For the British music fan, the album contains the same magical vibe that makes whole football stadiums stand up and dance when they play 'One Step Beyond', but with a class and intelligence all of it's own.

Every track is a winner, but my personal favourites are the trumpet fuelled mayhem of 'Nu Mai Beau' with its fantastically enthusiastic vocals and masterful tooting. 'Balkan Reggae' gets all dubby and hypnotic with some great duelling horns towards the end and 'Na James' adds an upbeat female vocal to an already jumping instrumental track. Best of all is the steady build up of 'Hora Din Mahala', and then the whole thing goes ballistic after about thirty seconds.

It's an album that everyone should own and for once the music is as good as the brilliant sleeve design. I can't wait to sample their first, self titled album if it's anywhere near as enjoyable as Ghetto Blasters. As the blurb again reminds us: "May your nights be long, very long indeed!"

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

M.I.A. - Kala LP

What is it?
Maya Arulpragasam embraces hip hop, dance and world music in a hard to pin down mix of genre busting pop.

Why should you listen?

It's hard to describe this album. Is it Urban? Hip Hop? or World? It's probably fair to say M.I.A is possibly the best rapper we have in Britain, spicing things up with a whole host of world music references, from Bollywood to Africa to gunshot samples. Lots of gunshot samples. It's a powerful concoction of hooks, breaks and tough sounding male rap voices and if nothing else it's the 'streetest' thing I own by miles. Abandon all preconceptions, buy the CD, a baseball cap, grab some homies and enjoy.

What's it like?

It's like the Attack the Block in music form.

What's the best song?

"Jimmy" is a complete hip hop/Bollywood fusion camp fest.

Who does it sound like?

I know so little hip hop that I have few references. I like Public Enemy. Eric B and Rakin and Lootpack, but this doesn't sound like any of them.

Monday, 18 June 2012

You Say Party! We Say Die! - Monster

Pick of the Week 6 - You Say Party! We Say Die!

It took a while for this to grow on me, but now it has I'm disappointed to find out the group might have split up, although they do have a current line up listed on Wikipedia, so who knows? Hailing from British Columbia in Canada, the band are apparently indie rockers with a penchant for 'dance punk', whatever that may be. They rattled out four studio albums between 2005 and 2009 and sound not unlike an easy listening version of Metric, but perhaps that's a little harsh.

I particularly like this song for its straightforward indie charms and slightly bonkers video. There's an element of Little Red Riding, some excellent cat's cradle action, a large puppet, some overacting, bad dancing and an attractive hair style thrown in for good measure. Similarly to Wales, Scandinavia and Poland, I struggle not to like any band from Canada, and You Say Party! are no exception. Possibly the best band name ever, and they really shouldn't have shortened it!

Saturday, 16 June 2012

And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead - Madonna

Imagine a football team. Week in week out they turn up and put in a solid performance. Nothing inspirational, but they get the job done. 1 - 0 results are the order of the day. There are no thrilling 3 - 0 comebacks here. Don't get me wrong, some games contain bursts of excitement, but they are the exception rather than the rule. If you were to watch one game and enjoy it, you would enjoy any of their games.

The team consists of players who, whilst they can pass it around competently, never thrill you with their sublime first touches, their prowess at set pieces or their silky ball skills. They are trustworthy players who do a professional job on the pitch and fold their towels neatly in the dressing room after use. (They never - I repeat - never go out drinking and fraternising with ladies the night before a game. And then blatantly lie about it.)

At the end of the season they are always in the mid-table spot, exactly in the mid-table spot. Never higher. Never lower. Every season is pretty enjoyable but it is known from the very start where the team is going to finish. Trip to Wembley? No chance.

Every season is exactly the same but a modest number of season tickets are always bought. The supporters are generally people with heart complaints and are therefore averse to any divergence from the norm. This team suits them just nicely. Safe and predictable.

Imagine that football team is a popular music combo.

That team is And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead.


Thursday, 14 June 2012

Sons and Daughters - The Repulsion Box LP

What is it?
Glasgow's Sons and Daughters build on the success of Love the Cup with a feisty collection of home-grown indie stompers.

Why should you listen
Take the attitude of Arab Strap, the unashamed pop of Belle and Sebastion, throw in a bit of the B52's and you've gone part way to describing Sons and Daughters. The sound is definitely Scottish, certainly indie and possibly a little like Evlkeith's favourite 1980's female vocal bands such as the Joyce Mckinnie Experience, which can only be a good thing. It's a thoroughly enjoyable album with an altogether endearing 'homemade' feel to every song, like it was recorded in a single day to save on studio expenses. Every song is a winner but 'Red Receiver', 'Dance Me In' and 'Monsters' all showcase the punchy aggression of the band. I'm now really looking forward to listening to the copy of 'This Gift' which is nestled snuggly in my big pile of CD's to listen to.

What's it like?
It's like two of your Scottish Auntie and Uncles grabbing instruments and microphones and launching into 'Rock Lobster' with very little rehearsal, (in a good way.)

What's the best song?
'Taste the Last Girl' is a nine weeks at number one single in any other reality.

Who does it sound like?
Everyone and no-one really. The B52's comparison works best for me.

Monday, 11 June 2012

I Wrestled A Bear Once - You Know That Ain't Them Dogs' Real Voices

Pick of the Week 5 - I Wrestled A Bear Once

There's never a bad time for a bit of genre-blurring screamo action and the Alabama based I Wrestled a Bear Once prove themselves to be an especially grizzled and chaotic bunch of noise merchants. There's more to the group than the racket however, with regular changes of tempo, snippets of harmonic crooning and odd references to other genres such rockabilly, electro and jazz. I found myself humming this, if that's possible, while brushing my teeth this morning, and that's no mean feat for a screamo record.

Quality song aside, questions need to be asked about the video. What the hell is going on? There's a wrestler, an evil clown, worm based pudding and lots of silly string. Throw in a deranged primary school head-teacher and it's not unlike the disturbing nightmares I have on a regular basis, admittedly without such a catchy soundtrack. Maybe it's me, but I'm not sure the plot holds together.

On the plus side, they're big mates with the excellent Dillinger Escape Plan and charismatic singer Krysta Cameron takes inspiration from quirky legend Bjork when attempting the more melodic aspects of the songs, which can only be a good thing. Daughter of DocCortex is quite keen that I should purchase one of their albums and I just may do that in the near future based on the power, attitude and all round quirksomeness of this song.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Shins - Wincing the Night Away

It must say something about me personally, but I always seem to like individual artists who are undeniably 'ploughing their own furrow', (and often posess a beard). Singers like Bright Eyes, Bob Mould or Mark Oliver Everett seem completely unconcerned with fashion and release album after album of material that reflect their own personal universes rather than the generally horrible one that the rest of us live in. And similarly to these artists James Mercer produces music that is unlike anything else on the market but always fits within the 'Shins' frame of reference. He's basically decided that this is the way music should be and I'm going to make it like this...forever. I've got to say I prefer this attitude to the constant reinvention from the likes of David Bowie.

The Shin's third album 'Wincing the Night Away' follows a similar path to its predecessors, but is more consistent and enjoyable if anything. Mercer's songs seem to be written in an alien language and with a unique and beguiling structure. There's none of the simple verse-chorus business here and the compositions seem simple on the surface, but are simultaneously complex and full of depth. Likewise, the words are clearly enunciated and spoken in English yet you have little idea what he is actually saying. It's a magical mix of the strange and familiar producing pop music that sounds like it's been transferred from otherworldly inteligences than written.

Where Bright Eyes succeeds and Eels seemingly fail on a commercial level is that Conor Oberst plays the game and always puts a couple of more commercial tracks on each LP. To a certain extent 'Wincing' uses this technique, with some high impact accessible numbers contrasting the quirkier more introspective tracks, but each and every song has it's individual charms and merits. Mercer seems to have injected a little love-ability into all of his creations and it produces his most satisfying album to date.

I particularly like the jaunty sing-a-long of 'Australia', the meandering straightforwardness of 'Girl Sailor' and the epic lushness of 'Phantom Limb'. Best of all is the anthemic folky majesty of 'Sealegs' with a catchy chorus, kooky keyboard and beautiful strummed guitar. Having said that every track is a winner.

This is possibly my favourite Shins album so far. It builds on the successes of the previous two outings and adds something tangibly different to the mix, while retaining the trademark Shins sound. Here's hoping the new album ratchets up the standard even further, although it will have to go someway to top the sheer joy and passion of 'Wincing'. Go out and buy it if you don't own it already.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Nedelle - From the Lion's Mouth LP

What is it?
Nedelle Torrisi produces an album of acoustic simplicity in a cut above the usual female singer-songwriter standard.

Why should you listen?
This is a thing of rare beauty. It's simple, straight to the point, no frills song-writing with a distinctive voice thrown into the bargain. The songs are short and punchy with down to earth lyrics and a relaxed atmosphere. There's a fragility and vulnerability on show in 'From the Lion's Mouth' that can hopefully be nurtured and extended in future releases. This definitely sounds like an artiste in the early stages of her development and the future promises much from this classically trained violinist.

What's it like?
It's like Phoebe from Friends with talent and a decent voice.

What's the best song?

"The Natural Light" is an acoustic gem, but I only wish it lasted longer.

Who does it sound like?

Lisa Hannigan, Feist, Laura Marling, Rachel Unthank

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Alpine - Villages

Pick of the Week 4 - Villages by Alpine

More Australian action this week with this intriguing combo Alpine. The band come from Melbourne, are signed to Ivy League Records and appear to have toured extensively across Australia. I've had a few of their songs on my YouTube playlist for a while now and this is possibly the pick of the bunch. 'Villages' is both catchy and atmospheric, with a baseline that instantly gets under your skin. The harmonies from the two vocalists are almost Abbaesque and remind me of the early Lush tracks on 4AD with the beautiful sleeve designs and ethereal production. The video is equally enigmatic with top marks going to the make up artist, the special effects team and the director's love of extreme close up shots. We can only look forward to a full album release in the near future.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Princess Chelsea - Lil' Golden Book

It's safe to say that Princess Chelsea will be filed under the word 'quirky' in the world of mainstream British music, but this album has so much more to offer than its obtuse pop sensibilities. For starters, her voice is a thing of beauty; it's distinct, crystal clear and has an atmosphere all of its own. Chelsea (I'm guessing the singer is called Chelsea?) has a rich New Zealand accent and pronounces her words with such perfection it never ceases to fascinate me. Applied to the original and unusual little ditties on the album the voice produces a unique sound and feel that is both profound and accessible.

The style of the songs, instrumentation and packaging of the album combine to produce an atmosphere that screams slightly weird and wonderful toy shop. But listen a few times and there's a darker element evident here too. This is the soundtrack to the toy maker from Bladerunner rather than you're local Toys R Us. These toys have a slightly evil and foreboding nature, and beneath the deadpan facade lurks a kitsch, hedonistic and slightly warped nature. It's the toy shop I would have loved to have visited as a child.

All the songs in the Lil' Golden Book are oddities, but somehow they combine to form a coherent and unique package. Chelsea doesn't croon, warble or even belt out the decibels, but her precise, delicate and sometimes distant vocal paints a subtle wash over each song, before the occasional hint of emotion adds a splash of raw, primary colour. The accompanying male voice contrasts effectively and provides a much needed foil to the frosty delivery of his female partner. If you want a direct comparison: it's like the awkward songs from Belle & Sebastian, but sung by the Ice Queen from Nania.

Every song has something magical to offer, but the standout tracks are the nursery rhyme charms of 'Ice Reign', the heartfelt warning of 'Too Fast to Live' and best of all, the very civilised argument of 'The Cigarette Duet'. The video says it all and as one of the comments states, 'It's so cool it makes you want to start smoking'. I somehow doubt that was the intention.

This is a strange but brilliant album that shows true originality and promise. I only wish I knew more about the band other than snippets of information gleaned from articles on the Brunettes. If you can find a copy on Amazon I'd snap it up immediately. My favourite album that I've listened to this year by a long way.