The Just Played Verdict: The Decemberists ‘The King Is Dead’

After their rather adventurous, opinion-dividing previous outing, ‘The Hazards Of Love’, The Decemberists opt for a back to basics approach with this, their sixth album. Having strayed from their ‘charming sea shanties by an indie band’ template of late, it’s a delight to luxuriate in the rich tones of Colin Meloy‘s voice in full flight on these relatively simple songs.

decemberists kid

Starting an album with a shrill blast of harmonica, rarely an instrument which provokes an “oh goodie” from the listener, is a bold statement of intent on this country-tinged collection. ‘Don’t Carry It All’ turns out to be a mid-paced stomper with a charming sing-song quality despite this particular adornment, whilst ‘This Is Why We Fight’ already sounds like one of those insistent tracks you’ll be putting on your end of year compilation many months from now. Continue reading “The Just Played Verdict: The Decemberists ‘The King Is Dead’”

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.

manics_pfaym_cover

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…

sept reviews 1

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.

sept reviews 2

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.

Rough Trading Leads To Lack Of Choice

Bella Union boss Simon Raymonde tweeted the following comment yesterday:

Simon RT tweet

If only it were that simple. But surely, surely the country is crying out for a few more decent record shops that operate in the spirit of Rough Trade? Today, as regular readers will have been expecting, I undertook my traditional Bank Holiday record shopping trip, this time attempting to seek aural pleasure in the music emporia of Nottingham. Now, I admit that this does rule out some of the more specialist options – Rob’s Records, The Music Exchange etc – but in terms of conventional music shops, offering a wide range of new releases, what is there available? Three branches of HMV and a Fopp, also owned by HMV. Since Selectadisc’s demise last year, the East Midlands has become a desolate wasteland for the music fan. The excellent Rockaboom in Leicester and the none too shabby Music Mania in Stoke aside, there’s little to get excited about. How can this be?

Even more dispiriting is what HMV have done to the old Virgin/Zavvi store on Wheeler Gate, where it has taken a ten year lease. Previously the big high street music presence in the city, as a Virgin Megastore and then a branch of Zavvi, HMV have ripped out the soul of the store along with most of the stock. It has vast swathes of open space, a few aisles for music and a complete lack of focus. Compared to the footfall on previous bank holidays when it was Zavvi, it was doing a fairly passable impression of the Mary Celeste today. There’s no vinyl for sale, the back catalogue is hideously basic and pointing out the fact that HMV were ever a music retailer seems like the ravings of a madman.

I know that music is a tricky thing to sell these days. I know that plenty of businesses have gone to the wall in the last decade, but where’s the ambition? Where’s the desire to even try and cater for all of the city’s music fans left with little option after the closure of the final sizeable independent store? Zavvi had racks of vinyl at competitive prices that saw a regular turnover; why no interest in these customers? Let’s not forget that their demise was brought about by the failure of Woolworths rather than a particularly wayward approach to business. I presume they’re not stocking it on the premise that people don’t buy it, but I’m keen to know how exactly they’ve tested that theory. It’s a self-perpetuating shitty state of affairs whereby HMV have fallen so far down the list of places music fans actually go to when they want to buy new releases that they aren’t likely to actually receive visits from people who could actually be spending loads during this difficult financial period. Once you feel disenfranchised, why bother going back? This is my first visit in the best part of a year and I’ll be in no hurry to go back.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

HMV have conspicuously marginalised music over recent years, but the Wheeler Gate store in Nottingham is a fine example of a retailer not having the first clue about what it is doing. Lacking in customers, stock and direction, it’s hard to know exactly what it’s there for. How does it anyway offer anything different to the other two branches of the same store elsewhere in the city, let alone its ‘major in skinny-jeans and a band t-shirt’ offshoot, Fopp?

I am in no doubt that a decent, well-stocked, well-promoted independent store in Nottingham – provided the location wasn’t too costly – would prosper. As one of the many people who started to travel further afield when shops like Reveal in Derby closed down so as to seek our new music thrills at Selectadisc, I would suggest that it wouldn’t just serve the people of Nottingham but also many throughout the East Midlands. Whether or not that could be fulfilled by the Rough Trade model, who knows? But the approach of the current Rough Trade West store installed in the old Selectadisc shop would likely bring many music lovers out of the woodwork at some speed. Far be it from me to suggest some kind of lovely internet campaign to beg for more independent music stores in the UK -  I noticed Simon’s tweet was only retweeted five times, hardly a resounding response – but I don’t see any harm in having a good moan.

Smooth Trading

I made my first visit to Rough Trade East yesterday and found it to be quite a pleasant experience. For those not aware, Rough Trade closed its Covent Garden store last summer in order to open what was widely described as a ‘megastore’ off Brick Lane. This new store has been much hyped by the media and hit the headlines with the free Radiohead gig back in January that was so popular it actually had to be moved down the road.

The internet community is littered with people unhappy with the prices in Rough Trade and so I approached the store uncertain about what I’d find inside. As it goes, the first thing that you’re greeted with is a cafe, offering the chance to grab yourself something to drink as you wander about amongst the racks. There is something fundamentally wrong about this, it seems to me, although at the time I didn’t allow it to sour the mood. As someone who practises the ‘two-handed rummage’ when looking through racks, I’m not sure where the coffee’s meant to go when you’re actually looking at the records you presumably went there in order to purchase. Am I over analysing this?

Anyway, the record shop is presumably what you’re interested in. Firstly, the selection is huge but, as a result of being in a bloody big building, the shop is enjoyably spacious. Having sweaty, middle-aged men in raincoats squeezing past you as a fug of warm fart hangs over the artist-alphabetical section that you’re battling to get a look at loses its allure pretty bloody quickly. Filing is pretty simple and none of the artists I could think of – and I did try to be a little bit awkward at times – were filed out of my grasp.

Price-wise, I take the point of those who mutter about how much certain things cost, although I don’t think that they’re particularly over the top for the majority of items. I have to say, my main focus was on the vinyl which was pretty reasonable all round and when I strayed into the CD sections the odd item was a little more than I’d have expected. To use a couple of the items I purchased as examples, £13.99 to add a vinyl copy of Richard Hawley‘s ‘Coles Corner‘ to my collection is pretty standard and The Superimposers‘ new album, ‘Harpsichord Treacle‘ was £9.99 on CD, with a bonus – Rough Trade only – disc featuring remixes and unreleased tracks.

Rough Trade East seems pretty good at stocking those items that you struggle to track down. In amongst the racks of 7″ singles, I noticed Duffy‘s ‘Rockferry‘ (ok, I know, I’m just using it to make a point) and Adele‘s ‘Hometown Glory‘ at their original prices, rather than the inflated eBay nonsense that’s occurred since they became famous. They’ve still got stocks of the ‘Fat Children‘ 12″ that Jarvis put out a while back, which everyone else tells you has sold out. Ok, so it’s on their own label, but it’s worth a rummage if you’re after something in particular.

The other reason for visiting is the sheer exposure to different records. A sustained browse – caffeine assisted or not – will present you with all sorts of records you’d forgotten about or never seen physical copies of. In addition, the reasonably hyperbole-free description labels on everything help you to dig up something new that you just might like. Be in no doubt, there are plenty of better record shops out there, but this one is a worthy addition, and I can’t help thinking it’ll still be there long after many of my current favourites have pulled down the shutters for good.