September Reviews – Manics, Ben Folds, Peter Broderick, Underworld & Rough Trade Psych Folk

Currently available in a newsagent near you in almost the same from as you can read below are these five reviews of albums released this very month. Some good stuff here and one of the strongest reviews months I can remember. Don’t worry, next month is a bit of a let down by comparison. I wouldn’t want you to think I was enjoying myself too much. Still, I have the lead review this month which means more words to play with, so we’ll kick of with this relatively lengthy appraisal of a very fine record.

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MANIC STREET PREACHERS – ‘Postcards From A Young Man’ (COLUMBIA)

Leave your prejudices at the door and open up your ears. After the militant basslines and scorching vocals of ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’, the Manics are going for your heart. Talked up as one last shot at “mass communication,” this is an unashamedly pop record and its chutzpah is staggering. Gospel choirs, soaring strings and choruses you could use as landmarks in a blizzard make for an astonishing listen.

The joyous bombast of first single ‘(It’s Not War) Just The End Of Love’ never diminishes, similar to much of what follows, and it heralds a shift in approach from the band. The album could be subtitled ‘Happy Songs About Serious Stuff’, so frequently are complex lyrics presented alongside glorious pop hooks. Take ‘Hazelton Avenue’, which couples an admission that consumerism can make you happy with a riff which could hold its own in a battle with ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’. Then there’s ‘Golden Platitudes’, reflecting on the disappointments of New Labour set against delicate strings and swooning backing vocals before giving way to an outrageous ‘la-la-la-la-la-la’ middle eight. It’s majestic.

Classic ‘Everything Must Go’ rock has its place too, with ‘A Billion Balconies Facing The Sun’ and ‘All We Make Is Entertainment’ both evoking that era. If ‘Journal…’ marked a return to the dark brilliance of ‘The Holy Bible’ then ‘Postcards…’ nods to the stadium-sized splendour of their fourth album. The additional confidence that comes with releasing your tenth album has allowed these meticulous students of pop to ditch the shackles and just go for it. Most remarkable of all tracks is the duet with Ian McCulloch, ‘Some Kind Of Nothingness’, a slinking soulful number with both James and Mac in masterful form. It is unlike anything either men have done before and utterly beautiful.

There will be plenty of people who opt to be snobby about the fact that this record is so commercial, so polished and so brazen but those people are all, to a man, idiots. If you can’t love these songs, you are incapable of experiencing joy itself.

9/10

I really do love this record. As a bit of a Manics fanboy I had high hopes for it and was a little concerned that it might just be another ‘Send Away The Tigers’, which is to say the sugary high would give an instant rush but wear soon thereafter. Not so. I received this at the start of a holiday at the end of July and spent much of that week listening to it in all kinds of different locations and situations and I soon found that I had absorbed huge amounts of the record without even trying which, in my book, is a very good sign. I’m still playing it frequently now, another rarity when it comes to the albums I review. If you hate the Manics, don’t bother. But I genuinely can’t see why anyone who has ever been fond of the stadium sized incarnation of this band wouldn’t take to this.

I should just point out that the last paragraph and score as shown here is not how it appeared in print. There’s always a risk with any vaguely opinionated stance that it will get subbed out before it ever appears in the magazine and, likewise, high scores are often marked down without any reasoning. However, this is the first time I’ve had a whole paragraph – and the bloody conclusion at that – switched out for something riddled with clichés and containing a basic misuse of the apostrophe. I know, I know, I should calm down but, eugh, it’s annoying. Annnnyyyway…

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BEN FOLDS & NICK HORNBY– ‘Lonely Avenue’ (NONESUCH)

It has to be said that, considering how Nick Hornby is credited with writing all of the lyrics here, the usual Ben Folds key words are present and there’s only so much ‘bastard’, ‘shit’ and ‘fucking’ I can take. Despite this concern, as well as being Folds’ most musically accomplished outing since going solo, it does feature the magnificent phrase, “some guy on the net thinks I suck and he should know; he’s got his own blog.”Sublime strings from legendary Bowie arranger Paul Buckmaster provide a charming gloss, while ‘Your Dogs’ is an alarmingly accurate rendering of early Elvis Costello. 7/10

That line is good, isn’t it? Or am I just saying that to try and disprove it! Hah, you may never know. I’m not just saying. You know. In all seriousness, I do still find it far-fetched that the lyrics are so typically sweary when not written by Ben. Curious to hear your thoughts when it’s out. For followers of the @justplayed Twitter account, this may bring back vague memories of my rampant swearing about the pissing stupid copy protection on this CD which meant it didn’t actually play in most of my players and, even in those where it did, it seemed to have actually have screwed up the audio on parts of certain tracks. My good will was tested to breaking point and, had it not been an artist who I genuinely follow and care about, it would have been hurled out of a window or used to line a bin in no time. By all means restrict access to new stuff, but please, please don’t presume we’re all criminals to the detriment of the actual music. What with that being the only thing that matters and all. David Hepworth recently wrote a splendid piece along similar lines over on his blog here.

PETER BRODERICK – ‘How They Are’ (BELLA UNION)

Recorded in one day and functioning as a stop-gap ahead of a full album in early 2011, the seven songs on ‘How They Are’ are stripped back and plaintive. Blending the heart-rending vocals of 2008’s more fleshed-out ‘Home’ with the stark augmentation of his soundtrack work, it’s a curious but beguiling beast. Be sure to seek out remarkable opener, ‘Sideline’. 8/10

A Bella Union release that’s brilliant? Really? Who’d have guessed? Ok, so it’s pretty much my label of choice this year and currently running with a remarkable hit rate. Just wait for the Our Broken Garden and The Walkmen albums – both are brilliant. They also have the nicest colour coordinated promo CDs I’ve ever seen. Feel free to ask me about this on Twitter if you’re that interested!! The vinyl pressing of this is superb, if a little pricey for only seven songs. However, whether you’re a fan of singer/songwriter Peter Broderick or instrumentalist and composer type Peter Broderick, you’ll enjoy ‘How They Are’. It’s short, by the way, because it went in the side bar, just like the Rough Trade comp below.

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UNDERWORLD – ‘Barking’ (UNDERWORLDLIVE.COM/COOKING VINYL)

Having lost focus with 2007’s ‘Oblivion With Bells’, it looked like Underworld’s descent into the lower echelons of musical history was assured, but ‘Barking’ may yet reverse that slide. While there are still occasional dips, the alchemy of old returns. ‘Always Loved A Film’ ranks with their very best material to date, a swelling refrain blending with Spanish guitars to euphoric effect. ‘Grace’ and recent single ‘Scribble’ aren’t far behind, while album closer ‘Louisiana’, just piano and Karl Hyde’s haunting vocal, sounds uncannily like Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis and it makes you wonder why they don’t do more like it. 8/10

I really didn’t expect to like this as much as I did, the previous outing doing little for me but there is something utterly charming about ‘Barking’. I maintain that ‘Always Loved A Film’ is an absolute treat and while it’s not a perfect record, some of its highs are very high.

VARIOUS ARTISTS  ‘Rough Trade Shops… Psych Folk 10’ (V2 / COOPERATIVE MUSIC)

This 21 track compilation makes for a slightly laborious listen taken in one sitting but, used as a starting point for further explorations, works like a charm. Sample it in little chunks and you’ll be sure to find some new favourites from the slightly wonky end of folk. Sleepy Sun and Hush Arbors for me, but there’s plenty to enjoy. 6/10

This is a tricky one, because this comes across a little more harshly than I would now wish. I stand by my comments about it not working in one sitting, but there is some really very good stuff on it and I have it to thank for my recent conversion to the wares of the marvellous Sam Amidon, who you should really spend some time with. Weirdly, despite a 6/10 review, I ended up buying a proper copy of this at the Green Man Festival from the Rough Trade tent where it came with a bonus 10” with a scarce Doves remix. It prompted a bit of a re-evaluation. It would easily be a 7 now, possibly higher, and if this sort of thing is your bag, you really should give it a listen.

Futuremusic – Day Three

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Do you long for a time when Ben Folds wasn’t shit? Do you find yourself wondering why nobody writes proper songs anymore? Were you pissed off when the last Duke Special album sounded like it was made entirely of sugar, dipped in more sugar and then encased in that sugary stuff they put around sugared almonds? Fear not, help is at hand.

Today’s Futuremusic focus is the really rather lovely music of Charles Ramsey. For a start he has a good singer-songwriter name; it trips off the tongue like Randy Newman, Paul Simon, Teddy Thompson. Luckily, he also delivers when it comes to the music. I’ve always been a sucker for what I would call ‘beautiful’ songs. My brain gets diverted, my thought processes unravel and I zone out of all conversation whenever a ‘beautiful’ songs loom into earshot. Recently, I found myself dashing to iTunes as a result of Peter Gabriel‘s stunning cover of The Magnetic Fields‘The Book Of Love’ being used over the final scenes of the eighth season of Scrubs. Not someone whose musical antics I would normally hoover up, but there I was, desperate to get hold of this track which, as it happened, isn’t available via download stores and thus Amazon gained £3 in order for me to relieve them of a copy of the otherwise shite soundtrack to ‘Shall We Dance’. But it’s happened many times before and I truly hope it will happen many times again the future. The latest ‘beautiful’ song moment came courtesy of Charles Ramsey. ‘She Changes You’, from his current album, ‘Good Morning and Good Night’, is a perfect pop song. A gentle drum beat and a stirring string refrain lure you in before Ramsey’s distinctive but utterly soothing vocals take over. It’s not great surprise to see that he counts The Beatles, Burt Bacharach and The Divine Comedy amongst his influences. The presence of both a harpsichord and an English Horn on this track ensure that it is sonically beguiling. And, yes, you’re reading the words of a fan of The Divine Comedy here, but I defy you to listen to that song and not think, “Mmmmm, I’d like to here more of his stuff.” So, why don’t you give yourself a four minute break from whatever your doing and do just that. Clicky for said song.

See? The music of Charles Ramsey is so clearly borne of a great musical heritage, absorbed over years of intensive listening to some of the true greats, and yet it avoids being simply derivative and inessential. His debut album, ‘Something New’, was the sound of an artist finding his feet and didn’t quite scale the heights of ‘Good Morning & Good Night’ but nevertheless demonstrated a skill for what you might term ‘classic songwriting’. ‘So Much Better Off’, the debut’s highlight, can be heard on Ramsey’s Myspace player and it’s a nifty little piano-pop beast that, were it released by a faddish troupe of pop tarts such as The Hoosiers, could be a huge hit. It bounces along, piano thudding along in a fashion that Foldy Benjamin would be thrilled with, horns gradually building to a glorious flourish and all of it sounding like a record made by someone who loves a bit of ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’. It’s great.

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Recent recordings build on Ramsey’s pop nous and thus ‘Good Morning & Good Night’ is an album that deserves an audience. As any good scientist will tell you, it’s been clinically proven that if you end up whistling a song involuntarily, it must be pretty decent and so I have found myself offering my own, fairly out of tune, renderings of three of four songs from this album in recent days. As with the two acts already featured this week, Charles Ramsey has seized the initiative and put his music out there for you to go and get and both albums are available from iTunes (and other download stores) should you wish to get an immediate fix.

iTunes link for ‘Good Morning & Good Night’

iTunes link for ‘Something New’

But, for those of who’d rather have the physical product (and which right-minded individual wouldn’t) you can avoid cutting Apple in on the deal and give your money direct to the man himself via Paypal options on his website. Clicky.

Whether it’s ‘So Much Better Off’ or ‘She Changes You’, just wait till the next time you find yourself absent mindedly whistling to yourself and take a moment to check which song it was. Charles Ramsey is never going to be trumpeted by the NME as the new sound of anything because, frankly, he’s not but I’d say a bit of space can be made in the hearts of anyone who likes smart pop music, be it Ben Folds, Teenage Fanclub or the aforementioned Paul Simon. No agenda. No fad. Plenty of decent tunes.

 

Ok, so who took it with them?

Musical Revelations Of The Week:

Ash – ‘Twilight Of The Innocents.’ ‘Meltdown‘ was a crock of shit. There’s no disputing that I’m afraid. Oddly, I appear to have the 2CD limited edition of it nevertheless, which one again casts further doubt on my quality control when it comes to purchases, but that’s for another time. This latest one is full of quality pop tunes and Tim’s finest vocal performance to date. Unfortunately, it’s been mixed so it sounds like you’re listening to it through two pillows rather than two speakers. Presumably it’s another example of the compression that’s being used to kill off the remaining elements of the music industry. That said, it’s a minor quibble about an unexpected triumph, particularly with the absence of the lovely, lovely Charlotte (whose album, ‘The Deep Blue‘ is also worth some of your time.) Ok, so they’ve gone for cheap publicity by making the announcement about there being no more Ash albums, but you can’t blame them for wanting to raise their profile a little.
B.C. Camplight – ‘Blink Of A Nihilist‘ – Like Ben Folds fronting the Beach Boys. Don’t think I need to say anymore because in what universe does that not sound like a great thing?
Crowded House – ‘Time On Earth‘ – Unlike most ‘reformed’ albums, this is bloody great. Having received the spangly CD/DVD edition, I’ve given it a more thorough listen and it is a really strong collection of tunes. Like much of Neil Finn‘s songwriting, it takes a few listens before it starts to reveal its full charms, but once it does there’s plenty to get excited about. ‘Don’t Stop Now‘ is reasonably representative, in the sense that it sounds very much like Crowded House, but there are a number of less conventional tracks towards the end of the album that ensure things are interesting until the last notes are played. Plus, it made me dig out the Finn Brothers‘ ‘Everyone Is Here‘, which is another great album.

Non-musical Revelations Of The Week:

The Thick Of It – Due to a combination of a shite DVD recorder and a briefly hectic social life, I never managed to see all of the first part of the two-hour special when it was first show in January. Thankfully, it was repeated this week in preparation for the debut of the concluding part on BBC4. Both episodes were laugh-out-loud hilarious and, while not surprising for a show with a ‘swearing consultant’, the expletives were beautifully executed. My favourite bit involved Malcolm talking about downloading rice. I won’t try to quote it as it’ll never managed to be as funny as the real thing.
Catherine Tate in Dr Who – She’ll be his regular compadre for the next series. And it was all going so well.
Summer – I used to console myself with the fact that although I was suffering with nuclear hayfever, at least it was sunny outside. Yet this week I have had chronic symptoms and it’s barely stopped raining. Exactly how is that fair? Some nice weather would be appreciated. That said, the current weather does make for ideal playing conditions for ‘The Good, The Bad & The Queen.’ Every cloud, and all that…