Saturday, 29 September 2007

Gorgeous George - Edwyn Collins

This month, Scottish indie-crooner Edwyn Collins releases his sixth album, Home Again, having recovered from two major cerebral haemorrhages in 2005 and a subsequent infection with hospital 'superbug' MRSA. That he can once again sing is miraculous, and that the his latest album has found such a favourable reception is perhaps all that surprising. He is a formidable singer-songwriter, with a powerful, deep voice.

Collins' commercial peak came with this 1994 album, Gorgeous George. Best known for the phenomenally catchy hit "A Girl Like You", the album ranges in style from angry, crunching rock to acoustic ballad via a series of dancefloor-friendly pop songs. Opener "The Campaign For Real Rock" will floor anyone who bought this expecting ten variations on the 'Girl Like You' formula. Six and a half minutes of fuzzy diatribe aimed at just about everyone in music at that time: American rock stars, Britpop young pretenders, faceless scenesters, aging hippies and everyone in between. It centers on a deliriously nasty guitar solo and segues into a description of the summer festival scene as "the gathering of the tribes descending [on a] rotting carcase". The echoing chants of "Yes, yes, yes, its the summer festival/ The truly detestable summer festival" give way to the thudding pop rock of "A Girl Like You", but the reprieve only lasts until the third track.

"Low Expectations" is a gentle acoustic number; "Out Of This World" is a nifty piece of minor key pop/rock. "If You Could Love Me" flirts with disco and comes away a winner. The true highpoint of the album is the title track, a wry satire on stuck-up industry types that moves from gentle verse to explosive chorus. It highlight's Collins' three strengths: his biting lyrical wit, his cross-genre musical innovation, and his wonderful croon.

Expect a review of his latest soon. I'm not sure I'll be able to hold out much longer on buying it. In the meantime check out the video, and applaud another great comeback.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

The State of Things - Reverend and the Makers

It starts with an electronic choir, epic and patronising, some wise words of wisdom, a "little introduction to the state of things". Cheesy drum machine, and then finally kicks in the true appeal of this Sheffield-grown six-piece kicks in: a wonderful, danceable bass.

There has been a degree of hype around Reverend and The Makers in recent months. An association with Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys (who lends here one each of a guest vocal and guitar spot, in return for some lyrical help on their second album) and Jon McClure's considered and outspoken political opinions have lent them a degree of coverage in the music press. Those familiar with demo Ten Songs may be disappointed with how much more they sound like an Ian Brown solo outfit here.

First single "Heavyweight Champion of the World" is a brilliant piece of dance-pop that rightfully reached the UK top ten, but follow-up "He Said He Loved Me" is a complete disaster. What, on demo, had potential for comedy cross-over here has become plain annoying, all chavvy accents and cud-chewing. Fortunately it's the low point on an otherwise solid, if occasionally monotone album.

"The Machine", featuring Turner is good; "Bandits" is better, featuring a variety of different voices enacting some kind of three minute musical about being "skint and demoralised". "Open Your Window" is in the vein of "Heavyweight...", but bracketed by some wonderful guest vocal work reminiscent of Play-era Moby.

In the usual Arctic Monkeys tradition of a mid-album slow number, "Sex With The Ex" is predictably sweet, followed by "18-30" which is the angriest song, spewing bile over 'Brits-abroad' mentalities (a better, longer version was heard as an early B-side). "What The Milkman Saw" is kinky, "Sundown On The Empire" sounds dub, and "Miss Brown" is some kind of upbeat comedy ballad.

By the time you listen to spectacular album closer "Armchair Detective", which attacks, well, people like me (or rather those who cram their uninformed opinions down other's throats, I'll leave that up to you) and sounds exactly like Ian Brown, you might not quite believe the hype, but you'll have enjoyed finding that out for yourself.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Think Tank - Blur

Rumours persist of a reunited Blur recording one final album as a foursome, but its worth remembering how much better their last album, sans Coxon, was than its predecessor, 13.

'No, I ain't got nothing to be scared of, no' intones Damon Albarn over epic opener "Ambulance". The quadruple negative is a useful way of thinking of the album; each portion is intensely negative in its own way, but as a whole the result is peculiarly positive. In terms of individual songs, this is the darkest album Blur have ever released. There is no feel good single here, no "Tender", "Coffee and TV" or even "Song 2" (though the short, furious burst of "We've Got A File On You" comes close). Despite this, it is probably also Blur's most uplifting album since 1994's Parklife. The three other albums since then have often been emotionally suffocating, even in the case of 1995's musically bouncy The Great Escape.

While Coxon's absence is notable, Blur had kind of abandoned guitars on their previous album anyway. The real shift here is from a band focus to a focus on Albarns writing. "Out Of Time" is a spacey, tragic ballad that sounds like a superior Gorillaz B-side. "Crazy Beat" sounds like a decidedly inferior Gorillaz A-side (Norman Cook's unwanted presence most notable here). Dave Rowntree's mathematical drumming takes a back seat to simple beats and Moroccan rhythms. Alex James's virtuoso bass playing is not so easily contained, and many of his neat bass hooks carry the songs melodically when Albarn's vocals make way for electronics and rudimentary acoustic guitar.

If Blur reunite for an eighth album, I hope that they take the Think Tank blueprint over the last album to feature Coxon. As the final track here, "Battery In Your Leg" proves, together the four of them can produce truly astonishing music. Uplifting and emotionally destroying, Albarn claims its the only song he has ever written about Blur. I hope it is more an appeal to Coxon to return, and not simply a tragic epitaph for one of the best British bands of the last twenty years.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Empire - Kasabian

In the second of an unintentional series of 'unexpected second albums from the class of 2005', we have Empire by Kasabian. It is not the vast improvement suggested in some quarters, but it does definitely buck the trend of dodgy second albums by improving on their patchy, if atmospheric debut.

The real shock here is the feel of the album; their first was four or five bass/beat heavy, post-Stalinist singles that were great for striding aggressively to, pinned together with synth heavy pieces that were eerie more than anything else. Their second is crammed with potential singles, many with a disconcerting Summer of Love flavour (try not to smile at the entrance of Indian strings towards the end of "Me Plus One"). "Empire" and "Shoot The Runner" lead the album and singles and are good pop songs, each with a genuinely interesting breakdown in the middle and some nice glam guitar from Sergio Pizzorno, who takes the brunt of the songwriting for the first time here.

Its not all hits. "Apnoea", a deliberately out-of-place beat-heavy dance charge is completely misjudged, and "By My Side" sounds like a rejected track from their first album. It contrasts with the similar but exhilarating "Stuntman", in which Tom Meighan's vocals adopt an Ian Brown-esque whisper and float over the synths and beats.

The album climaxes with out-and-out prog anthem "The Doberman". Its terrific stuff, moving from a quite, poetic verse to a thundering chorus and a neat little breakdown similar to the album's opener. It feels epic, even more so than early singles such as "L.S.F.", and it gives the album that which was lacking on their debut: a reason to listen right to the end.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Our Earthly Pleasures - Maxïmo Park

As difficult second albums go, this lacklustre sophomore effort from Tyneside's Maxïmo Park really takes the biscuit. Their debut, A Certain Trigger, was a lively, vital record that came out in the front runners for 'indie record of the year' in 2005. Their b-sides collection was pretty decent too, so what a shock it is that this second album sounds like the band have become a spent force.

Opener "Girls Who Play Guitars" has a catchy title and that's about it. Its an uncomfortable attempt to recapture the unconventional structure of "Apply Some Pressure" and fails. It also contains a strong contender for most bizarre lyric ever written - "we used to talk about boys with missing spines" - and indeed front man Paul Smith's wordplay frequently fails to match that on their debut. There are songs in here about traffic and motorways that sound like touring has taken the toll on his songwriting, and all he can do is look out the window and ramble about what he sees.

"Your Urge" is a dull and lifeless piano trundle with a weird discordant chorus. "The Unshockable" is even more strange; as Smith delivers semi-rap about roadworks over a weird twanging bass line, you'll wonder what on Earth inspired them to include it on the album. At least the chorus is passable.

Fortunately, it seems that while their experimental side has decayed somewhat, their more sentimental songwriting has been somewhat honed. "The Coast Is Always Changing" always sounded like The Smiths, but here "Books From Boxes" sounds really, like, no, really like it was written by Johnny Marr circa 1985. This is a good thing, and the song is a sweet ballad in which Smith's lyrical idiosyncrasy is once more endearing. It is followed by "Russian Literature" a pacey piano-led number that shouldn't work but does. For such a weird song (again, about architecture and travelling etc.) it is infuriatingly catchy.

Danceable indie rock comes in the form of "Our Velocity", which trots along through a succession of nice musical blocks, and "By The Monument". But that the album's highlight is also the oldest song on here is a worrying indication of slipping standards. "Nosebleed" is a simply gorgeous, mature piece of songwriting in which the time has been taken to get the arrangement just right. Its kept low-key and the deceptively simple melody and complex, thoughtful lyrics are allowed to carry the song through to its heart-rending - and cheekily abrupt - ending.

You'll probably find that you won't listen past this, the ninth of twelve tracks, but there's a decent chance you'll be satisfied enough here. As an album, Our Earthly Pleasures is a failure, but is perhaps worth purchasing on the strength of four or five excellent tracks. My hope is that this promising band aren't rushed in writing their third album, because it is obvious that they need time to develop and streamline an idiosyncratic writing style, and all too often on this album, the final effort is too rushed.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Myths Of The Near Future - Klaxons

Last week, this debut album from the London-based Klaxons won the prestigious and ever-controversial Nationwide Mercury Prize. To say this came as a shock would not quite be accurate, since no one ever expects the favourite to scoop the panel-selected prize, but the supposed competition between the two female voices of Amy Winehouse and Natasha Khan (of Bat for Lashes) never materialised, and instead the prize went, for the third time in four years, to an NME-championed indie boy band. While the Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand deserved their respective accolades, I'm not so sure this "new-rave" experiment does.

Myths of the Near Future is a good album, propelled by a cluster of strong singles that generally avoid any clichéd verse-bridge-chorus template (exception: the overrated "Golder Skans", and lets not mention their last single just yet), and stitched together by a few interesting pieces that definitely could not be released individually. So yes, it is an album proper, and yes it shows some innovation. But the album does not work as well as it should on the strength of the songs.

Much of this comes from the fact that Klaxons are an incredibly frenetic live band. The northern end of their breakthrough at 2006's Reading/Leeds festival was unbelievably chaotic for a band in such an early slot on a tiny stage. The fervour that they drew from the crowds headlining an NME tour earlier this year was brilliant, verging on dangerous. And they even made a success out of their Glastonbury slot, despite being completely unsuited to playing in daylight and suffering from some apparently prescription-strength psychotropic drugs. The songs on record had no chance of capturing the giddy unpredictability of their music in the live arena.

"Two Recievers" is a fine start, followed by the inimitably wacky "Atlantis To Interzone"; built around a distinctive "Weuoogh Ah-Ah-Ah" synth riff, its a fantastic, catchy piece of dance-rock. "Golden Skans" and "Totem..." are passable indie pop, and "As Above, So Below" is completely forgettable. It is followed by the terrific, surreal and unnerving erotic stomp of "Isle of Her" (say it out loud to get the pun) which is the high point of their so-called 'forward music'. Indeed, the album peaks around here, followed by a re-recording of their terrific debut single, "Gravity's Rainbow", not quite as subversive here, but with a necessary studio sheen and upped bass.

The final four tracks provide some kind of group manifesto, and it is here that the cracks begin to show. "Forgotten Works" is a cool prog-funk workout, and is followed by the pounding "Magick". Musically they're both strong, but lyrically its hard not to suspect that their J.G. Ballard-worship is a simple affectation attempting to cover their lack of song material. "It's Not Over Yet", the root of the "new-rave" tag, is a decent attempt at covering a truly awful piece of 90s cheese, and its inclusion and subsequent release as a single merit only wide-eyed confusion and the sensation that you're not in on the joke. "Four Horsemen of 2012" is brave enough to sound absolutely foul for about three quarters of its running time, but placed after such a putrid cover you'll most likely find you can't be bothered to listen to the end. If you do, you'll discover yet another despised long-silence-then-a-crap-song error in the form of a hidden track.

Its a good album, tightly played (particularly on the drums and bass) and features some deliriously unconventional guitar work. However, its hard to see it as an instant classic. Its not a Suede, a Dummy or a Different Class. I suspect its more akin to Ms Dynamite's debut, a figurehead of a scene that needs time to breathe and develop. All the Mercury Prize did for her was to kill her career where it stood. I hope this doesn't happen to Klaxons, because they are a great band who may someday produce an album that lives up to their potential. Myths Of The Near Future is not it.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Tilt - Scott Walker

This album from 1995 is a brilliant and daring construction, crammed with fully orchestrated and frequently terrifying song arrangements. It opens with the breathtaking "Farmer In The City", an ode to Italian cultural polymath Pier Paolo Pasolini, which is carried through by a full symphonic orchestra. It is a beautiful, operatic song, and yet the fractured, soft voice of Walker (a surprise to anyone familiar with his thunderous work in the Walker Brothers) and his obscure lyrical style remove it from the classical tradition.

Do I hear 21, 21, 21
I'll give you 21, 21, 21

Any at this point expecting an album of orchestral ballads will be shocked as the second song interrupts the calm created by the opener. A minute of squeaking and muttering suddenly explodes, with no warning, into a terrifying cascade of industrial rock. Clattering drums and screaming horns lead into a meandering bass line and military drums. The arrangement is complex and typifies the approach taken with the remaining seven songs on the album. Most are extended, and many are bracketed with periods of near silence.

If there is a problem with Tilt, its that its almost completely inaccessible on a first listen. Listening late at night through headphones is a frankly unnerving experience, and many will not get past the first couple of tracks. However, those who persevere will find subsequent listenings are extremely rewarding, as the complex lyrics and dischordant melodies begin to make sense, and the sudden switches of mood anticipated. Those who make it to the end will be greeted with the sparkling, abrupt acoustic ballad "Rosary". It will leave you with a puzzled smile on your face.

There are few albums quite like Tilt. It is more challenging than all of Walker's earlier work, and a bit more rewarding than his latest, The Drift. Then again, maybe I just need to persevere with that one.