Not quite ‘Just Played’ but nearly

Rain pours, Harriet Wheeler gently soothes the soul and the need for a jumper gradually creeps up on you. A good day, methinks. It’s strange to be mulling over the previous ten years of music, continuing to listen to a fair old pile of new stuff and already listening to some of the wondrous stuff that awaits in 2010. The Just Played Albums of the Decade feature will begin shortly and I have every hope that it’ll be at least quite good. The list is close to finished but, simultaneously, subject to a great deal of change. The end of year list is also coming together alongside the larger venture, but its progress is repeatedly stalled by the number of ‘late greats’ entering the fray.

In the last few weeks I’ve had my first listens to recent albums by Norah Jones, Hidden Cameras, Cate Le Bon, Cerys Matthews, Molina and Johnson, Mumford & Sons, Emmy The Great and Julian Casablancas. In addition, Noah And The Whale’s album got its first detailed listen and turned out to be really rather good while Monsters Of Folk, The xx, Cheryl Cole and Kings Of Convenience were explored in more detail. There have been so many fantastic records this year that it’s hard to know where to start.

Still, I’ll have a go. If the Cerys Matthews album was credited to Duffy instead, it’d be a chart-shagging behemoth of a record. As it is, it’ll sell a few thousand and turn up for £3 in Fopp within six months. Wearing its influences on its sleeve, ‘Don’t Look Down’ is a soulful set of beautifully constructed pop songs. It’s hard to believe that the same person was responsible for ‘The Balled Of Tom Jones’, in conjunction with Space.

The Norah Jones album is being touted as the ‘Norah Jones album for people who don’t like Norah Jones albums’. That’s clearly spurious bollocks, because if you like this then you do and, oh well, nevermind, eh? Still, it’s very, very good and more than a little noisier than her previous offerings. I always quite liked her somewhat sneered at laid back jazzy early albums but this is definitely her strongest offering to date. Far more bluesy and benefiting from the presence of some of those responsible for Tom Waits’ ‘Mule Variations’. Not Tom Waits though, I should add. It’s already available via the little green blob, so click the image below and enjoy.

Norah 

The cryptically named Molina and Johnson are a double act comprising of Jason Molina and Will Johnson. Molina will likely be familiar to you as the man behind the always enchanting Magnolia Electric Co and, having already provided one of the better album of the year with that band’s ‘Josephine’, has now managed to turn in a second belter before the year is out. Far more sparse than the aforementioned, ‘Josephine’, this is a bleakly beautiful collection of melancholic music boosted by deft and subtle playing. Wait till it’s dark, grab a cup of something warm and sit by the window looking at the stars and hit play.

molina-johnson

My new found love of Cate Le Bon came about as a result of a happy coincidence. Having heard her named mentioned in a few places and seen her profiled in a couple of magazines I knew of her, without knowing what she actually sounded like. I found myself thumbing through the singles in Spillers the other week and happened upon her self-released 7”, ‘No One Can Drag Me Down’, from a couple of years back. It sat in the bag for a few days until I finally dusted it down and gave it a go. Four play of each side later I was hooked. I can’t actually remember the last single that I gave instant repeated play to and this one truly deserves it. Click here and you can download both sides of that single for absolutely nothing. I will be absolutely amazed if you’re not glad to have done so. That might well lead you to her recently released debut album which doesn’t sound quite as Coral-y as that particular single but is one of the most charmingly simple collection of folky songs I’ve heard all year. It is, inevitably, available on Spotify.

cate

David McAlmont has set about adding lyrics to a number of pieces by genius composer (and Divine Comedy inspiration) Michael Nyman. It probably shouldn’t work but, providing you’re a fan on McAlmont’s voice in the first place, it’s remarkably successful. I’m only the first couple of listens in at this stage but I’m strangely hooked. In the same way that Neil Hannon adding vocals to Yann Tiersen’s ‘Les Jours Tristes’ should have been a bit of a balls up but really, truly wasn’t, McAlmont’s mellifluous vocals are a perfect fit for the dramatic endeavours of Nyman and I suspect this one has the capacity to become a firm favourite before too long. Let Spotify be your guide:

mcalmont nyman(and should you wish to test my theory, here’s ‘Les Jours Tristes’ without Neil and then with – both are rather nice, eh?)

I was never hugely fond of the early sound of Idlewild. They always struck me a bit too much energy and noise and not quite enough in the tunes department. I reviewed their 2005 album, ‘Warnings/Promises’, and remember quite liking it and wondering if things had changed. A recent purchase of their best of for £3 confirmed that I’d perhaps been a little hard on the increasingly early-REM aping Scots. Their latest album, ‘Post Electric Blues’, has lifted them higher in my affections and with good reason: it’s a bloody good collection of songs. At times poppier than they’ve been in the past, this album is probably far too late to put their star back in the ascendancy but I suspect its quality will surprise you if you have them chalked up as indie also-rans who never quite delivered. It may have taken them a while, but they’ve very much turned up with the goods. (Plus, there’s a lovely vinyl pressing on the Newport based Diverse Vinyl label)

idlewild

For those who follow my Twitter postings, Ellie Goulding should not be an unfamiliar name. She is responsible for one of the THE pop songs of 2009, ‘Under The Sheets’. With unashamedly enormous beats all over the place and a quirky vocal it pummels along for almost four minutes, doing everything great pop music should: slowly building to euphoria, staying just the right side of annoyingly repetitive, going a little bit dreamy around the two and a half minute mark before gradually returning to the enormous sound of the chorus. Oh yes, my music loving brethren, this is what it’s all about. You might, of course, think it’s bobbins. But I suspect that would make you wrong. (The b-side, ‘Fighter Plane’ is also rather good)

elliecover

On the subject of top notch pop, if you’ve not heard Jamie from The xx’s version of Florence’s cover of ‘You’ve Got The Love’ then you should probably do something about that. Don’t be put off by the arse-shreddingly mediocre Florence reading, this remix is wonderful, entirely in keeping with The xx’s own fabulous debut album. 

I shall conclude by briefly gloating about some of the wonderful new music I’ve been listening to over the last couple of weeks. The first month of 2010 will deliver both a new Tindersticks album and SupergrassGaz and Danny doing a covers album as The Hot Rats. I spoke to the latter band for a ‘New for 2010’ piece and they are, quite rightly, rather proud of the twelve reinterpretations they’ve opted for. Their take on ‘Love Is The Drug’, ‘Love Cats’ and, most notably, ‘Fight For Your Right’ have been keeping me thoroughly entertained for a little while now and any Supergrass fans can sit back in anticipation of a genuinely wonderful collection of songs. Some versions are more conventional than others but all are delivered with gusto and style. Not all covers albums have to be ‘Swing When You’re Winning’, ‘Allow Us To Be Frank’ or ‘Studio 150’. This one is much more of a ‘Pin Ups’.

As for the new Tindersticks album, ‘Falling Down A Mountain’, it only arrived yesterday and I’m still a little bit too giddy to be particularly objective about it but suffice to say it’s another quality addition to a back catalogue that barely puts a foot wrong. It’s a little rougher round the edges than 2008’s ‘The Hungry Saw’ and it’s musically less restrained than that, nevertheless really rather beautiful, previous record. There are occasional hints of the more claustrophobic production sound of ‘Curtains’ and ‘The Second Tindersticks album’ on a couple of tracks, while closer ‘Piano Music’ is an epic instrumental piece which certainly evokes times gone by.

Where it all began

The latest dip into my oh-so-very self indulgent archives goes right back to the start. As I was lugging bags of shopping out of the boot, the phone rang and I answered, suitably flustered, with a curt, ‘Hello?’, not recognising the number. I was greeted with, “Hi, it’s Paul Du Noyer at Word magazine.” Being more than a little bit of a music press geek, this was a fairly unbelievable moment. My little piece on some Elvis Costello reissues that I’d emailed off a week or so previous had not only been received and read by Paul Du Noyer, but he actually liked it! And here he was, offering me the chance to do a page review of his new one, with the reissues rolled in for good measure. It’s one of those moments that I’ll always remember and it was an instant shot of euphoria that’s hard to top. Looking back at it now, its not too bad. The bus analogy could be worse and you can tell I used to absorb anything and everything I read  – I still regularly read six titles – but I reckon it’s not a bad debut!

Feel free to tell me otherwise!

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ELVIS COSTELLO

North (and re-issues of Get Happy! Trust and Punch The Clock)

Deutsche Grammophon

The odds of hearing Elvis Costello singing; “I want to kiss you in a rush, and whisper things to make you blush” were never very high. It is not what you would expect of him. Which is probably why he’s gone and done it. One suspects he’s not keen on the idea of being predictable. His last album, released on a hip-hop label was a College Chart Number One in America. Other recent work included providing the music for a ballet production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and recording the old Chaplin tune ‘Smile’ for a Japanese detective show. The man simply, and rather charmingly, cannot be pigeonholed. Speaking in WORD some months back, Costello told how he felt his last release, ‘When I Was Cruel’, “didn’t have a tremendous amount of heart” to it. By contrast his new album wears its heart ever so firmly on its sleeve.

Those of us willing to invest in Costello’s eclecticism have long since given up trying to guess what will be heard after pressing play on each new release. Pooling classical and jazz influences, ‘North’ plots an emotional journey that one would be churlish to pretend does not begin with his split from Cait O’Riordan in the autumn of last year. A sparse sombre tone pervades the initial tracks and you can’t help but wonder if loss and pain will loom like storm clouds over the entire album.

The mood lightens as the album progresses with a certain air of chronological autobiography. On ‘Still’, The Brodsky Quartet are finally reunited with Costello, a decade on from the glorious ‘Juliet Letters’, and their appearance appears to bring about a more engaging performance style that propels the record to its conclusion. ‘Let Me Tell You About Her’ is virtually a “conventional” love song, one of Costello’s first. You can almost picture Costello gliding over the keys in the corner of a smoky jazz bar, while the muted trumpet finale surely begs for a black and white film for it to soundtrack. It’s gorgeous, with the vocal making full use of Costello’s baritone while the lyrics are immensely heartfelt if unexpectedly, but utterly forgivably, a tad clumsy.

‘North’ comes to its close with ‘I’m In The Mood Again’, thus completing our hero’s journey towards his new-found happiness with Diana Krall. The melody reflects the lighter mood that has replaced the foreboding initial textures, and contentment is as prominent as it can be on an album bearing the legend ‘Elvis Costello’. In the sleeve notes of the remastered ‘Punch The Clock’ Costello describes much of his oeuvre as “allergic to the happy ending”, but, ever one to contradict, ‘North’ appears more than willing to buck such a trend.

As well as ‘Punch The Clock’, ‘Get Happy!’ and ‘Trust’ have also just re-emerged as part of the ongoing reissue programme. It’s hard to pick fault with the whole collection let alone these three, which between them contain over seventy bonus tracks; a live version of ‘High Fidelity’ aping the style of Bowie’s ‘Station To Station’ and practically the entire ‘Punch The Clock’ album in its uncluttered demo form amongst the highlights.

Costello’s accompanying essays are almost worth the admission fee alone, with recollections as wide-ranging as mistakenly adding echo to Chet Baker’s trumpet part on ‘Shipbuilding’ and the magical imagery conjured by the phrase “a rather lifeless lesbian discotheque”, which was apparently the only nearby entertainment during the recording of ‘Get Happy!’. The remastered sound is warm and forgiving, even with parts of ‘Punch The Clock’, and the bonus discs are genuine delights in every instance.

It’s hard to imagine ‘North’ selling as well as these earlier albums did, and I can’t imagine Costello is that bothered. This is another of those albums he’s wanted to make, another expression of his desire to try everything and a record that will no doubt incite as much criticism from some as it will praise from others. It’s not a classic, but it’s a lovingly crafted record that you will keep returning to, slowly allowing its subtle charms to seep in.

Speaking to the BBC a few years ago, Elvis said: “if you don’t like this one, maybe you’ll like the next one. They’re not all a series of red buses that are all the same”. Listening to the shift from ‘When I Was Cruel’ to ‘North’, quite what sort of buses the record companies will be repackaging twenty years from now, God only knows.

Originally published in Word Magazine, 2003

That’ll be more of me then…

Two more from my reviews archive today. Both of these I stand by, though the second is probably the most bile strewn review I’ve ever written. Firstly, though, the never-ending majesty of Doves.

Doves - Some Cities

DOVES

Put on the headphones, unleash the rain and treat yourself to a truckload of euphoric melancholia as Some Cities sucks you in.

Anyone who has ever witnessed Doves live will vouch that onstage they produce a joyful racket, on a good night transcending their recorded output and achieving something truly beguiling. Their stunning debut, ‘Lost Souls’, was followed by 2002’s ‘The Last Broadcast’, an album that was never less than good but which failed to capture the widescreen sound of which this band are capable. With ‘Some Cities’, Doves come good on their early promise. Lead single, ‘Black And White Town’ careers along with a momentum so ferocious that it drops us smack into the next track before anything can get too familiar.

Never ones to allow genre boundaries to get in the way of a good tune, at times ‘Some Cities’ sounds like Doves have ripped off any number of little ideas, and yet the sum of these parts is ultimately unlike anything I’ve heard in ages. ‘The Storm’ opens with an electronically tinkered vocal and develops into the kind of atmospheric beauty that could soundtrack a million late night drives. This nocturnal claustrophobia dominates much of the record, before collapsing in on itself for the ethereal, and oddly serene, closing track ‘Ambition’.

The lyrics tackle changing relationships, attitudes and places, in most cases not changes for the better. Fear, anguish and battling the worst have always been key lyrical concerns for Doves, but they do it with more conviction than most. When I heard ‘I tried to sleep alone, but I couldn’t do it’, on ‘The Cedar Room’ over five years ago, I believed every word. On this evidence, life hasn’t got much more carefree.

Some Cities is on Heavenly.

Originally published in Word Magazine, 2005

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billycorgantfe

BILLY CORGAN

Now somewhat less smashing, Billy Corgan returns with The Future Embrace, an album dogged by the past.

It’s rare when a successful band crumbles for the lead singer to subsequently achieve similar success on their own. Going on this evidence, it seems unlikely that Billy Corgan will buck this trend. Where the scope of the Smashing Pumpkins’ music enthralled, the heavy, over-bearing production of this effort ensures that any half-decent songwriting is buried beneath turgid rhythms and distorted drums.

Tracks flow by with such scant regard for the listener’s enjoyment that the tedium begins to annoy. The Eighties sounds that are being so successfully plundered by the likes of The Killers and Goldfrapp are all over this record, and yet someone appears to have forgotten to add anything new to proceedings. It’s a shame that one of the album’s few highlights, ‘Strayz’, is the closing track, as I suspect most people will have got bored some time prior to its fragile melody gracing the speakers. Stripped of the dense noise that suffocates the majority of the album, ‘Strayz’ finds Corgan at his most refreshingly simple, his voice working with the music rather than against it.

The greatest disappointment of the whole affair is the much vaunted collaboration with Robert Smith. At least William Shatner has the good grace to admit he’s taking the piss when he does his covers; Corgan’s attempt at ‘To Love Somebody’ sounds like the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang doing a Depeche Mode tune at the local karaoke night. You have been warned.

Originally published in Word Magazine, 2005

An attempt to get more visitors by mentioning Bad Lieutenant again…

While I’m bunging up various reviews, here’s an extended version of my recent review of the Bad Lieutenant album that was supposed to go on the Clash website but, for some reason, the small version from the magazine appeared instead.

Bad-Lieutenant-Never-Cry-Another-486003

BAD LIEUTENANT

Never Cry Another Tear

TRIPLE ECHO

New Order having dribbled to a drawn out, petulant and depressing conclusion, Bernard Sumner now finds himself fronting the less excitingly named, Bad Lieutenant. Completing the group are Phil Cunningham, ex-Marion and latter day New Order guitarist, and newcomer Jake Evans, described by Sumner as “a gifted new singer and guitar player.” Sounding like a tuneful Danny from Embrace singing like Jimi from Doves, his presence is not breathtaking, but he provides an interesting counterpoint to one of the most recognisable voices in modern music.

The album is, largely speaking, a collection of mid-paced adult contemporary rock, perfectly suited to Bernard’s drunk-tramp-with-burnt-feet dancing style. The slightly tiresome acoustic chugging favoured by Sumner dominates proceedings, but ‘Never Cry Another Tear’ gets interesting when it deviates from this pattern. ‘Dynamo’ features an outrageous plundering of The Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, with a repeated jittery electronic sound that must only just be on the legally deniable side of original songwriting.

While oh-so-very Radio 2, ‘Runaway’ is a rather charmingly pristine pop song, which would likely be a chart-shagging behemoth were it sung by the lispy one in Take That. Album closer, ‘Head Into Tomorrow’, is a stirring, everything and the kitchen sink, indie anthem sung by Evans and a surprisingly decent way to bow out.

Sumner is notoriously crap at lyrics and, were this album used for a drinking game based around hackneyed clichés, everyone would be absolutely smashed within minutes. In a so bad it’s borderline genius fashion, ‘Poisonous Intent’ actually contains the phrase “so hit the road, Jack!”

‘Never Cry Another Tear’ is a pleasant enough listen, with just enough little hooks to keep things interesting. Sadly, the one Hook that might make it truly worthwhile is nowhere to be seen.

6/10

Written in August 2009

A self-indulgent way to pass the time

Hello, dear readers. The end of the decade best of list is proving tougher to finalise than I thought it would be, so that’ll have to wait just a little longer. As part of this process, I’ve been revisiting some of the reviews I’ve written over the past six or so years and thought it might be interesting to post them here and see if I was on the money, wide of the mark or simply babbling incoherently. I should say before I start this, I’m not overly thrilled with all of these and they will be the original texts as I submitted them to the magazines, and so any bits that got subbed by my erstwhile reviews editors will still be here.

To kick off, a review of Supergrass’ best of, from 2004. I’m in the middle of doing a piece about their charming new extra-curricular project, The Hot Rats, so I thought I’d drop this one out there.

Supergrass_is_10 

SUPERGRASS SUPERGRASS IS 10

(Parlophone)

The grammatically correct but aesthetically depressing title aside, this particular retrospective is something of an unknown history. After their tumultuous arrival in the midst of Brtipop, Supergrass’ star has appeared, through no fault of their own, to have been on the blink. Seemingly rather keen to point out that it wasn’t all cavorting on bikes and bendy-legged Muppets videos, this set gamely attempts to represent both sides of the ‘Grass. .

The soul of Britpop hasn’t lost any of its vigour when it reappears on a fair wedge of tunes culled from the band’s debut, ‘I Should Coco’, a spirit that is reprised on tracks from their underrated and notably under-bought last album, ‘Life On Other Planets’. There is a slight feel, however, of being down the indie-disco and the dreaded fear that Shed Seven might pop up at any time is never far from your mind. Where this record really strikes gold is in highlighting the band’s knack for contemplative, melodic acoustic tunes such as ‘Late In The Day’ and the glorious ‘It’s Not Me’. The parent album of this pair, ‘In It For The Money’, remains their finest achievement and is as deserving of the moniker ‘The Best Of Supergrass’ as this particular compilation.

Hugely enjoyable current single, *Kiss Of Life* comes on like a cross between The Charlatans and T-Rex with added silly noises, while other obligatory new track, *Bullet* offers a heavier sound but manages to forget to add a melody. Where they go next is unknown, but what they’ve already done bears some repeating.

VERDICT: Enjoyable nostalgia, but all you need is their superlative second album.

KEY TRACKS: Grace, Going Out, It’s Not Me

Originally published in Word Magazine 2004

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I largely stand by this, five years on, although there’s a slightly snide reference to Shed Seven there that’s helping nobody.

The other one for today is simply proof that I’ve always known what I was talking about.

elbow

ELBOW

Leaders Of The Free World finds Elbow delivering a work of global majesty.

Beardy, Mancunian melancholia is an integral part of the modern music scene. Where previously local rivals such as Doves have stolen a march on them, Elbow have set about fulfilling the promise that was so clear on their first two albums. Initially purveyors of more muted, atmospheric efforts, this time out the band seem far more confident of their sizeable talents

Mostly set in the urban wilds of Manchester, the brief global view attempted in the title track proves to be a remarkably successful – now say this quietly – ‘political song.’ The beauty of lines such as, “passing the gun from father to feckless son,” in neither being too blatant nor too pious ensures that the ham-fisted, vacuous efforts of many before them are not repeated in this gem of a tune.

The album maintains its quality throughout, two of the latter songs amongst the best things I’ve heard all year. ‘The Everthere’ employs similarly muted percussion to that of Blur’s charming, ‘Out Of Time’ and is one of frontman Guy Garvey’s finest vocal performances on the record. This is only surpassed by ‘Great Expectations,’ which tells the tale of an imaginary wedding on the last bus home between our man and a hitherto unknown young lady, for which “a call-girl with yesterday eyes was our witness.”

Such endearingly well-imagined lyrics are typical of ‘Leaders Of The Free World’, an album that comes good on Elbow’s previous hints at greatness and which will surely rank amongst the finest releases of the year come December.

Leaders Of The Free World is on V2

Originally published in Word Magazine 2005

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What can I say? I was playing the vinyl of this the other night, having just listened to the deluxe edition of ‘Asleep In The Back’ and was reminded that they’ve always been great, it just took the public a while to pick up on that fact. The rather lovely Jude Rogers, who was my reviews editor at the time, was part of the judging team who gave the Mercury Music Prize to them for ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ and she later told me that after falling in love with their fourth album, she was reminded of me banging on about how great they were and that I was right all along. Quite so!