Apparently Bi-weekly Round-Up of Recent Releases: Wild Nothing, Savages, Akron/Family, Purson, Still Corners, Shannon Wright, moreMay 30, 2013
More recent release reviews at THIS PAGE.
Arrington de Dionyso’s Malaikat Dan Singa: Open The Crown
I missed Old Time Relijun the first time around thinking, for some reason, that they were a relatively tame bluegrass revival act. I didn’t realize they were hillbillies of a different ilk, playing a sort of weird, off-kilter rockabilly blues more a kin to Blues Explosion than Be-Good Tanyas. Lately I’ve been exploring singer Arrington de Dionyso‘s exponentially weirder and more off-kilter solo records. His schtick is basically a magical melange of Captain Beefheart and Damo Suzuki era Can played in a sloppy Birthday Partyish post-punk/art-rock style very much in the K Records aesthetic (but with more passion and less twee smugness). What separates Dionyso’s music from merely being a sum of his influences is a bonus grab-bag of raw, ethic music influences—dancehall, dub, gamelan, various Asian vocal textures, etc. The result sounds like vintage, unearthed recordings of some crazed Thai Elvis impersonator having an on-stage breakdown while entertaining American G.I.’s on leave circa 1972. A spectacular, visceral mess. This is art school rock’n’roll of the highest caliber.
5 Velvet Elvis undergrounds out of 5 Captain eat your Beefheart outs
Wild Nothing: Empty Estate EP
I read an interview in The Quietus with Stephen Pastel (of The Pastels) yesterday in which he said:
“Probably the bands I am most impressed with now are quite retro in a way… But, in terms of something genuinely new, I see a lot of eclecticism and people taking different elements from different things but I don’t feel a sense of newness.”
Which I think is essentially what I’ve been feeling about a lot of indie-rock lately. This Wild Nothing EP included. It’s sort of a game of spot the influences. A little Squeeze here, a little Japan there, A Flock of Seagulls fly by while “A Dancing Shell” seems to contain most of Daft Punk‘s influences—but whether Wild Nothing got them second hand or from the original sources is up for debate. None of this critique is meant as criticism though. Empty Estate is as consistently catchy as set of alternative new wave toe-tappers as you could realistically hope to find back in 1982.
3.75 Polaroids taken by gentlemen out of 5 Telecommunications.
Savages: Silence Yourself
If you remember my Wax Idols review, you’ll see I suggest that they sound exactly like Siouxsie and The Banshees. Which they do, but Savages perhaps more so. Only they’d be a beefier Banshees who are less afraid to sound a teeny bit like Black Sabbath. Where Siouxsie’s post-punk outfit leaned towards proto-new wave influences like Roxy Music and Magazine, Savages are definitely more interested in muscular punk and Motor City rock’n’roll. So, in a sense, they improve upon the original (and copycats). On the other hand, the reason The Banshees were able to convince leery records companies to put out their records is they wrote some genuine earworms. Like Wax Idols, Savages have the look and sound nailed tight like a coffin, but there’s just that little tiny bit of something spectacular missing. That doesn’t mean I don’t somewhat love this record and this band (same goes for Wax Idols, by the by), just that my love isn’t blind.
4.25 Siouxsies out of 5 Banshees
Shannon Wright: In Film Sound
A proper retro riot grrrl/grunge record containing a healthy dose of early PJ Harvey, some L7 and maybe that first Hole album in a blender. It’s a bit more complex (and original) than those reference points suggest though. From a purely textural standpoint, In Film Sound is close to being a grinding, abrasive rock masterpiece. The first four tracks are relentless no wave dirges that keep smacking you in the face with a series of closed fist punches. Later on, things get a bit more restrained and mathier in a Slint-by-way-of-Fugazi way, but it still delivers a seething bitterness that is actually a bit scary to listen to. All that’s missing are a few proper hooks and this really would rival the best ’90s work of someone like like PJ Harvey—maybe even best it, actually, being rawer and with a little more fire in the engine.
It’s not all gold though. Shannon Wright is somewhat known for her Tori Amos/Cat Power-esque piano ballads (at least, that’s what I’ve always associated her with) and there’s one situated right in the middle of the proceedings which causes the album to lurch to a sudden, undignified halt. It’s not just that “Bleed” is meandering and tuneless (which it is), but it’s packed with such trite, cliched imagery of ’90s angst (I’m so useless, I can’t sleep/This bleeding heart/So I wait, I wait for you), that it feels almost like a Flight of the Conchords parody of a mopey, grunge-era ballad. Other than that, In Film Sound is a solid half-hour of delightfully grimy no wave or grunge or post-hardcore (or whatever we’re calling this kind of thing these days) guitar raunch. At the very least “Noise Parade” is well worth having on hand in case you’re called upon to drive a muscle car off a cliff in order to stop the apocalypse.
4 Electric guitars tossed into a wood chipper out of 5 Pitch perfect grunge era homages
Purson: The Circle and the Blue Door
More old ideas given some new life. Psychedelic proto-metal/progressive rock in this case. Obvious touch-points are Deep Purple, King Crimson, The Doors’ trippier, less Top 40-oriented cuts and Jefferson Airplane at those times when they teased us with getting seriously heavy. Heck, toss in The Pretty Things and a sideways glance at Zeppelin and Floyd too. All-in-all The Circle and the Blue Door is a pretty solidly authentic-as-fuck sounding record. This is reverent revivalism done right. Purson has stuck to the adventurous spirit of the music they’re meticulously replicating and, while not actually doing a single thing that hasn’t been done before, are somehow making it sound not at all like a pale reflection of past masters or just plain boring.
Good revival bands in any genre have the benefit of 40 years of hindsight and learning from their heroes’ mistakes. I feel like Purson asked the question, “Why aren’t all the songs on Crown of Creation like the title track?” and came up with the obvious answer, “They could! Let’s do it!” Not to say their aren’t mellower moments like Crown of Creation‘s “Lather” mixed in, but like that song, they’re all in keeping with the dark, heavy spirit of the rockers. Plus while intricate prog-rock riffage abounds, it’s reigned in so things don’t get bogged down like they tended to on Crimson’s platters. Here’s it’s just a hint of a Mellotron flute solo, not an engine-stalling four minutes of pixie-dust atmosphere or guitar wankery. Heads in 1968 would have been lucky to get a chance to walk through the blue door.
4.375 Bummed out, paranoid hippies out of 5 Faux-acid rock prog classics
Akron/Family: Sub Verses
Since Love Is Simple (2007), their final album as a four-piece, the boys Akron/Family have seemed to be bogged down with too many ideas. Most of those ideas involve a combination of high-energy, staccato African funk riffs and a lot of cerebral, epic prog but not many actual “songs” within all the mesmerizing bombast. Sub Verses sounds like a resurfacing of sorts.
In what seems like the first time in years, they approach pop melodies with “When I Was Young“, a decent doo-wop ballad in the tradition of John Lennon‘s “Jealous Guy“, but somehow it sounds exactly like Devendra Banhart (or perhaps that’s a plus in your opinion). “Until The Morning” sounds exactly like the kind of currently über-popular post-Coldplay indie-pop tunes that end up on car commercials. Even if they still haven’t quite returned to writing a suite of great songs, their sonic experiments are a lot more successful. There’s a better balance between busy world-fusion tracks like “Whole World Is Watching“, “Sand Talk” and “Sand Time” (a trio which sound exactly like an amalgam of their previous two albums) and the psychedelic drones and chants on tracks like “Sometime I” and “Holy Boredom“.
Ultimately, where the album falls down is there’s a flatness to the proceedings; a bored-sounding lack of passion where there should be completely unhinged abandon. And there’s the rub. Sub Verses is an album which seems designed to be an abstract whirlwind of ecstatic celebration but feels like a cold, contrived product of too much over-thinking in the studio (or in Pro Tools after the recording was completed). It’s frustrating because it feels so, so, so close to being a truly magical work of forward-thinking transcendental rock.
3.25 Almost complete return to forms out of 5 Near misses
Love and Rockets: 5 Albums
There weren’t too many post-punk/new wave bands making truly psychedelic pop in the ’80s. Bands who got labelled “psychedelic” usually only added no more than a tinge of flanger over their otherwise straight-up jangle-pop (and maybe wore a bowl-cut and some lovebeads). Love and Rockets really took the genre to heart and built on the early work of bands like Pink Floyd and T.Rex but in a completely stylish, contemporary way. To me, the music off their first four albums (represented here) is beyond critique—Its perfect psych-pop from one of my all-time favourite camps. So, instead let’s talk about the packaging of new “budget” box set since that’s probably what’s of interest to curious L&R fans. If this set is any indication, Beggars Banquet‘s new “5 Albums” packagesare going to fall, aesthetically, between their own deluxe Omnibus Editions and the cheapy Original Albums Series/Classics type pseudo box-sets currently on the market.
On the plus side, the box is a nicely designed clam-shell (as opposed to a sleeve based on a hideous template) and actually contains a small booklet, unlike the “Original Albums” sets which offer you nada. On the negative side, like the Original Albums sets, cheap cardboard sleeves house the discs, not sturdy LP sleeve replicas like the ones in the Omnibus Editions. As well, the booklet is very scant on actual information. If you’re a Love and Rockets fan, this won’t replace your remastered copies of their first four landmark albums which are choc-a-bloc with liner notes and photos (unless those aren’t important to you).
Where this “budget” set makes a case for legitimacy is the albums are still the remastered versions (including b-sides) and the fifth disc is a new compilation titled Assorted!, made up of bonus rarities. True, most of these tracks have been available on the previous reissues. For instance, the unreleased-for-a-reason Swing! EP showed up on the expanded version of their eponymous 1989 album. Besides a handful of extra b-sides, there’s a few “treasures” (quote marks pointedly used) for fans which haven’t been issued on CD before. One previously unreleased (not-bad/not-great) tune called “Sorted” makes its debut and the rare The Bubblemen EP finally gets a proper CD release (previously available as audio tracks on their Sorted! DVD). While The Bubblemen is the main reason I purchased the set, it is… well, let’s face it… it’s kind of terrible. “The Bubblemen Rap” is one of the most fremdscham-inducing “raps” ever recorded by white people. It borders on racist parody. The entire EP was always one of their more tragically goofball experiments though you do have to appreciate a b-side called “b-side” which is just several minutes of the sound of bees buzzing. Still, I had to have it. And if you’re a casual fan looking to fill out your L&R collection, this is a pretty economical way to do it.
MUSIC: 4 Landmark albums +1 bonus disc out of 5 Alternative rock classics
PACKAGE: 3.5 Decently pretty boxes out of 5 Deserves a proper career retrospective box sets
Still Corners: Strange Pleasures
At some point in the future the movie Drive is going to be acknowledged as one of the biggest musical influences of this decade. Not even its soundtrack necessarily, but just the sleek style of the film and the mood it conjures. On Strange Pleasures we hear Still Corners sanding off the rougher corners of their dark, woozy 2011 debut, Creatures of an Hour. That album was a bit like a dream-pop edition of Stereolab‘s space-age bachelor pad music, but set in a drugged-out, dystopian space-age. Strange Pleasures is the shimmery ’80s counterpart to that vision—less oil-projectors and LSD, more lasers and cocaine. Also a lot more neon. I can’t help picturing montages of various James Spader films playing on a wall of cathode ray TVs while I listen to it. From the shimmery guitars, reminiscent of The Cure, on “The Trip” to the slippery Spandau Ballet-esque shuffle of “All I Know” and the Tron-like arpeggiated synths through out, it’s a uniformly maudlin mash-up of bleak ’80s nostalgia with a shiny coat of paint. Not unlike Drive. Ultimately, it’s a bit like a less bombastic, less obvious, and generally easier to swallow, M83 album. Which is a good thing.
EDIT: Now that I’ve had some more time with the album, I’ve decided being “a less bombastic, less obvious, and generally easier to swallow, M83″ isn’t actually a good thing. I find M83′s contrived drama a bit overwhelming, but at least they generally remember to write some actual songs while creating their splashy ’80s soundtracks. Once the seductive shimmer dies away, Strange Pleasures reveals itself as a bit of a tuneless snooze. Dialing the rating down to 1.25 points.
2.5 Midnight drives out of 5 Low-key miserablist classics circa 1982-85
Daughter: If You Leave
I’m a damn sucker for the elfin Björk-inflected vocals of Swedish and Icelandic bands. So it’s no surprise to find Daughter at the top of my stack of new releases. Of course, once my ear sussed out that Elena Tonra is actually British, and the waifish lisp is something of an affectation, then it became a tad annoying. At this point the whole thing has begun to sound a lot more like The XX than Pascal Pinion or Stina Nordenstam (which was my original impression). Perhaps too much so.
I’m trying to listen to the album with unbiased ears, but it’s hard not to hear the myriad of influences from Stars and Arcade Fire to Sigur Rós and Coldplay then back to The XX and Björk again. On a purely objective level, the album is beguiling in the extreme. The melodies aren’t half-bad, the production is solid and not entirely unadventurous. It’s been well engineered to seduce the listener. But, again, perhaps too much so. The vulnerable vocals and swelling lifts are making me feel emotionally manipulated instead of genuinely moved. Like the band is batting its eyelashes at me and I’m feeling powerless in their sway—I’m going to feel sorry for them and pay their rent this month knowing deep down that I’ll never be invited over and they won’t return my calls.
2.5 Magical pixie dream femme fatales out of 5 Genuinely beguiling ingenues
Julia Kent: Character
Solo cellists (or any solo instrumentalists) not working in a strict classical framework often go in one of two ways—severe extended technique sound and fury or serene lyrical beauty. Usually the former. Character falls firmly in the latter, however, with a focus on languid mood-pieces rather than showcase Julia Kent‘s chops. It’s Julia Kent the composer’s record, not Julia Kent the cellist’s. Something like Joan Jeanrenaud‘s more melodic solo work, minus the displays of technical prowess. Which is frankly a blessing and a curse.
While Character seems devoid of the distracting egoism of a shredding virtuoso, there’s also not much to keep your interest focused during lulling chord progressions swaying like fields of grain. The result is something that could pass for a Jocelyn Pook score for an ambiguous, artsy thriller starring an assortment of unfamiliar European actors and one big American star like Brad Pitt. At times, a piece like “Kingdom” (which actually calls to my mind Lars Von Trier’s 1994 TV series, The Kingdom) seems decidedly stuck in the ’90s. Since I’m somewhat stuck in the ’90s myself, this is not entirely a bad thing for my ears (even if several of the compositions practically beg for a Lisa Gerrard vocal to complete them). Though it could use some of the grit and passion from her earlier albums, in terms of quality in the recorded sound, and in the music itself, Character is a step forward for Kent. Despite this, the album is a tad antiseptic and predictable for active listening, more suited as workout music for depressed yogis.
2.75 Now available for soundtrack licencing offers out of 5 Dark introspections
John Coltrane: Sun Ship, The Complete Session
I’m not going to pretend that, despite it being one of my favourite Coltrane albums, that I’m familiar enough with Sun Ship to make any kind of pronouncements about the relative merit of the various takes on The Complete Session. I can say that every time I thought to myself, This is effin’ smokin’! and checked the notations, it turned out to be a take used on the final album. That isn’t to say there’s anything here that’s really not “smokin'” at all, but all the most essential bits were edited into original album and you’ve heard them before.
What’s great about this double disc set is there’s enough variety in the extra hour of alternate takes and inserts that it never gets boring. A total of 30 minutes of “Ascent” might seem like overkill, but if you edited all these takes together seamlessly it wouldn’t sound repetitive—just like a really great half-hour long version of the track. Speaking of seamless edits, every once in a while we should give the producers and engineers of these pre-digital age records props for how well they stitched different takes into final compositions all on analogue tape. It now seems pretty incredible what they were able to achieve without the aid of computers. True studio craftsmanship. And speaking of studios, often archival fly-on-the-studio-wall recordings of chatter between takes is distracting or tedious but in this package it’s actually entertaining and illuminating. The relaxed, warm exchanges between the band and producer Bob Thiele are really quite endearing. Ultimately, the casual Coltrane day-tripper won’t need this long a ride on the Sun Ship, but seasoned travelers will appreciate the expanded vistas.
5 Complete pictures out of 5 Timeless astral journeys