May Reviews – Teenage Fanclub and Tracey Thorn

Here are the three reviews for which I’m responsible in this month’s Clash Magazine. Although there are only three this time out (seven next month, fact fans) what a three they are. I’m including my review of ‘Bang Goes The Knighthood’, despite the much longer piece I recently published as this is me reviewing it for a wider audience with many, many fewer words. Roughly the same end result though!

May Reviews

TEENAGE FANCLUB – Shadows’ (PeMa)

Finally, the Fannies explore their penchant for prog-rock and German psychedelia! Ok, so it actually sounds very much like a classic Teenage Fanclub record, but that should be enough to satisfy the discerning ear. After the relatively stripped back ‘Man Made’, ‘Shadows’ returns to the lush, meticulously crafted sound of previous albums. Lyrically, they’re no slouches but, as with so many of their wonderful albums, it’s the chiming guitars and angelic harmonies that truly revitalise the soul. ‘Shock And Awe’, replete with soaring guitar break, is a highlight, while their list of classic singles grows with the cheery ‘Baby Lee’. 9/10

If ever it’s possible to find oneself wanting another 900 words or so to explore an album properly, it was with this one. Keep an eye out for another ‘New Music Monday’ coming soon.. It’s a belter.

THE DIVINE COMEDY – ‘Bang Goes The Knighthood’ (DIVINE COMEDY RECORDS)

I won’t piss about. This album won’t convert anyone who previously found Neil Hannon’s band unpalatable. Indeed, it rather gleefully ramps up the eccentricity and delights in the study of curious characters of all ages and classes. At times it gets a little too silly, the lazy implied rhyming slang in ‘The Complete Banker’ the true lyrical nadir, but ‘Down In The Street’ and ‘When A Man Cries’ rank up there with Hannon’s finest grand production numbers, the former a shape-shifting musical avalanche which gets things underway. Album closer ‘I Like’ could even displace ‘National Express’ as his annoying pop smash. 7/10

I opted not to make a big thing of ‘Can You Stand Upon One Leg’ in this review as a) I had bugger all words in the first place b) it might have completely turned people away. It was tricky trying to contextualise this record beyond TDC fans, but I think it’s a relatively fair assessment. The recent, larger piece explains my thoughts in far greater detail.

TRACEY THORN – ‘Love And Its Opposite’ (STRANGE FEELING)

The distinctive voice of Everything But The Girl, Thorn’s almost effortless vocal grace has been a compelling part of the musical landscape for nearly thirty years. From electronic folk to warm, soulful country, the songs on what is only her third solo record tackle the pitfalls of middle age with a stark honesty, tempered by restrained optimism. ‘Long White Dress’ and ‘Singles Bar’, subject matter made clear from the off, are highlights; the former is mellow and wistful, with a delightfully lilting chorus, while the latter radiates the fatigued disenchantment of somebody lacking motivation in the unfulfilled pursuit of love. 7/10

This might actually be an 8 in the fullness of time, but what do numbers matter anyway? There are some quite magical bits on this, not least the two tracks mentioned in the review. Well worth a listen and a charmingly stripped back accompaniment to one of pop’s most recognisable voices.

2010 inverted

New Music Monday – The Divine Comedy ‘Bang Goes The Knighthood’

Wonderful records breed loyalty. If you’ve done enough to lure in the faithful then they’ll likely be there for you in the future, eagerly lapping up any of your aural oozings. Such dutiful application will ensure that releases will get a few more chances than most to gel, will be scoured for the positives and will be received in tones of rapture rarely befitting the actual songs themselves. Think Weller’s ‘Heliocentric’ and ‘Illumination’, ‘Know Your Enemy’ by the Manics, R.E.M.’s ‘Around The Sun’ or even the finest example of reverence over reality, the reviews which greeted ‘Be Here Now’ upon its release. Once you know a band so well that they feel like they’re yours, how easy is it to remain objective? Is it necessary to make excuses for the lesser works of fabled acts? To boil it all down: is it possible for an artist who’s ten albums into their career to shake off esteemed baggage and simply be enjoyed at face value?

bang-500

Yes. Or, as Neil Hannon would have it rather too frequently on this record, ‘yeah’! ‘Bang Goes The Knighthood’ is a rollercoaster for the emotions; a journey of the high seas of adjusted expectations. My early listens were riddled with apprehension and disappointment. I wasn’t sure what I wanted this record to sound like, but it wasn’t this. Some of the less than eloquent lyrics leapt out at me initially, despite my normal tendency to be someone who is lured in by the music first, and by the time ‘Can You Stand Upon One Leg’ – genuinely one of the very worst things Hannon has ever released – was underway I was starting to worry. In a culture full of snap judgements, aided and abetted by technology that allows, nay requires, instant feedback from you for pretty much every aspect of your life, I wanted to be able to pinpoint this album. Was it a success? How many songs were true greats? How did it fare alongside his back catalogue?

Repeated listens served to ease my furrowed brow, seduce my anxious ears and relax my knotted sense of loyalty. This is not a great Divine Comedy album. I know it’s a little early to be tossing out a dismissive statement like that, but it is perhaps the most effective way to set about putting this album into context for the small but merry band of Hannon fans. Alongside the aforementioned, disturbingly dire aberration that serves as the record’s penultimate track, a couple of these songs feel a bit too much like a grown adult on a bouncy castle. Sure, it’s fun, but is there any need? ‘The Complete Banker’, replete with depressingly clear rhyming slang implications, features workmanlike lyrics about the global banking crisis over a stomping chug of a tune and should really have been relegated to b-side status at best. ‘The Lost Art Of Conversation’ is a throwaway list song, evoking initial smirks from the bizarre choice of chat chums and taking sneeringly stereotypical pot-shots at the limited intelligence of footballers. Neil tells us that when it comes to “Frank Lampard, it’s going to take some concentration.” You see, it would be difficult because he’s not very bright. So he wouldn’t say much. Oh, it’s funny because it’s true. And, it’s weak because it’s lazy. Another track that I’d probably have warmed to shorn of the context of a whole album and simply proffered up as 79p throwaway bonus track in the land of the legal download, but when alongside ‘Assume The Perpendicular’ and ‘Down In The Street Below’ it stands out like someone shitting themselves in a graduation photo. It was supposed to be so special…

As you may have gathered from that last rather indelicately expressed point, there are still some great Divine Comedy track on ‘Bang Goes The Knighthood’ and I’ll confess that – ‘Can You Stand Upon One Leg’ aside – I am slightly exaggerating my disappointment. Largely, the album makes for a perfectly enjoyable listen and, once you’ve got to know the tracks a little better, there’s plenty to like. I would argue that there are three great tracks, along with six further decent tunes. The highs, when they come, are very high. ‘Assume The Perpendicular’ is the missing link between Hannon’s day job and his hobby of writing novelty songs about cricket. It has a certain Duckworth Lewis like swagger to it, a cracking set of lyrics and a brain-shaggingly catchy chorus. There’s no evidence of the epic sweep of old, no sign of the heartfelt musings of recent albums but it sits very nicely indeed alongside a summer smash like ‘The Pop Singer’s Fear Of The Pollen Count’.

That’s not to say that sweeping strings, epic storytelling and emotive, soaring Hannon vocals have been entirely decommissioned. There are three sightings on ‘Bang Goes The Knighthood’, with varying degrees of success. ‘Have You Ever Been In Love’, strangely shorn of its necessary punctuation, is a disarmingly simplistic love song which wouldn’t sound out of place with Michael Bublé’s velvet tones atop it. Despite this, and while I suspect it might not entirely convince the hardcore, I’ve been rather charmed by it. In spite of its shortcomings, its simplistic emotional transparency is oddly endearing. Far more severe is ‘When A Man Cries’, a sombre piece which sits somewhere between ‘The Plough’ and ‘’The Wreck Of The Beautiful’ in terms of impact. Either way, it’s further proof that he has an album of downbeat Scott Walker-esque melodrama in him somewhere.

I suspect that the album’s title track would also like to keep such company but has no such luck. It just doesn’t really do much at all, gliding in and out without leaving a mark. I suspect if it had a little more presence I might warm to it but it’s so very slight that I have almost nothing to say about it. Anyway, I mentioned three soaring charmers and the third is by far the best. Opening the album, and setting the bar almost impossibly high, is ‘Down In The Street Below’, an exquisitely extravagant, musically ambitious and lyrically captivating high drama for which Hannon has previously been known. It lurches, it eases, it charges and it swoons in all the right places. It’s a likely favourite for many and it would certainly be my tune of choice but for the song which treads the fine line between pop genius and nausea-inducing cheese: ‘I Like’. If there’s one point of view espoused in this review likely to provoke a response, it’s my wholehearted endorsement of this sun kissed, chart friendly demonstration of the meticulous art of songwriting. The lyrics are, at times, comically abysmal – “I like you ‘cos you’re sexy. I like the sexy things you dress in” – but on this occasion I’m willing to file them in the ‘I Am The Walrus’ folder rather than the puke-green wallet marked Des-ree’s ‘Life’ and other slights on mankind.This genuinely has the potential to overtake ‘National Express’ as that Divine Comedy song. It could storm Radio 2 and take over the tastefully minded middle classes in a moment. It is one of the catchiest things he has ever released and I have whole days where I cannot get it out of my head. Whatever reservations the lyrics may instil in you, they will be banished by its sheer force of will. It’s a song that wants you to punch the air, clap your hands and simply enjoy yourself.

indie-disco-500

It would be remiss of me to not consider the album’s remaining three songs: ‘Island Life’, ‘At The Indie Disco’ and ‘Neapolitan Girl’. The first in this list sounds to me like a plinky-plonky piano piece reminiscent of ‘Charmed Life’ from ‘Absent Friends’, ably assisted by the rather lovely voice of Cathy Davey. It’s a pleasant track but it seems ill-suited to bridging the gap between ‘The Lost Art Of Conversation’ and ‘When A Man Cries’. Had it taken the spot belonging to ‘The Complete Banker’ in the opening salvo I suspect it would seem rather more instant. As it is, it likely deserves the tag of ‘grower’ and I wouldn’t be surprised if six months on from now I’m making a minor fuss about how good it is. Likewise, ‘Neapolitan Girl’ is a smirksome shuffle, evoking memories of the very best of Neil’s quirky, novelty b-sides. It gallops along winningly, with the wind in its hair and a bright tie in its collar. It’s great fun and works well as light to the malevolent shade of ‘The Complete Banker’. Finally, first single ‘At The Indie Disco’ contains a delightful key change, replete with euphoric strings, around the two minute mark and the splendid line, “she makes my heart beat the same way, as at the start of ‘Blue Monday’.” Ever since video of an early performance of this track appeared on YouTube, it made me a little uneasy about the new album. As it was, there was some justification for this, even if the song in question is entirely redeemed by the aforementioned magical shift in its latter stages.

Neil Hannon still writes better indie-pop songs than most. He still possesses an enjoyable wry way with a lyric and he still knows how best to deploy the charging acoustic guitar sound that has been a staple of his music for the best part of two decades now. Vocally, he remains a force to be reckoned with and, when he’s at his best, he can still scale the heights of old. With occasional though judicious use of the skip button, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed living with this record for the last month and can gladly reassure the Divine Comedy fans reading this that there’s plenty to be pleased about.

And so, to return to my original questions. It’s not easy to remain objective and I suspect that I’d be less forgiving of some of these lyrics if they were dressed in different clothes but that doesn’t mean there’s any need to make excuses for such things. ‘Bang Goes The Knighthood’ is a fair way down the rankings for the best Divine Comedy album, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good record. As for the baggage that might be raising expectations and dragging down enthusiasm, it’s impossible to forget that I’ve heard ‘A Short Album About Love’ and ‘Casanova’. I can’t pretend that songs like ‘The Summerhouse’ and ‘Commuter Love’ haven’t melted my heart. I can’t pat down the goosebumps raised by ‘The Light Of Day’ or even ‘Too Young To Die’. This record rarely prompts such intense emotional rushes and, for that at least, I’m a little sad. But that Neil is still recording glorious pop music, still unleashing records containing at least a few songs you’d put on a best of and still capable of the kind of musical alchemy found on ‘I Like’ and ‘Down In The Street Below’ is reason enough to celebrate this release.

2010 inverted

Futuremusic – Day Three

FM3CR

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.

CR for FM

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.

 

Oh, the many words for Bono

Well, it looks like I’ve found somewhere else to spout about records on a monthly basis after a lengthy hiatus. May say a little more when it’s confirmed. It’s a nice feeling anyway, after a couple of years of not being able to say, "I’m in WH Smith" to loved ones, friends and bemused strangers.

Anyway, it looks like I’ll need to be even more concise with my words than I used to be. As if trying to write about music wasn’t difficult enough in the first place, this is a right bugger because it pretty much guarantees that you can’t set the scene. So, in an attempt to get myself back into old habits, I present the first offerings in a terribly exciting selection of 20 words reviews. Feel free to contribute some yourself. It might even be fun.

 

The Divine ComedyRegeneration

National Express man loses orchestra, suit and raised eyebrow but gains long hair, weird noises and Godrich production. Oddly undervalued.

 

The Divine ComedyAbsent Friends

National Express man regains orchestra, suit and raised eyebrow but loses sense of fun and retreads past to limited effect.

 

Blur Think Tank

Not much Graham, too much Fatboy Slim. Often chilled, sometimes heartbreaking and – whisper it now – actually Blur’s best album yet.

 

U2No Line On The Horizon

Crap. Cack. Shit. Toss. Balls. Plop. Shite. Icky. Smug. Piffle. Cobblers. Codshit. And, just for variety like, absolute smoldering arse.

 

Suddenly that two years hiatus makes sense, doesn’t it?

Cucumber sandwiches all round

I’m supposed to be working. That’s why I’m here. If you like, you can imagine the traditional apology for a delay in posting. Feel free to inset it about here. Done? Splendid.

If you like buying records from people then you will soon be officially ‘odd’. It’s not possible, apparently. Even the odd record shop still going – yes, HMV, I’m talking about you – doesn’t appear to actually want to sell music anymore. Branded ‘listen’ or ‘hear’ or something equally patronising, music is gradually being shunted into the small section previously reserved for ‘special interest’ DVDs and magazines. In the last couple of months, we’ve had the demise of Woolies, Zavvi and, more personally, the news that Nottingham’s Selectadisc is shutting up shop at the end of this month. I’ve written about this topic many times on here, so I’ll try not to witter on about the same-old, same-old, but I’m genuinely pissed off at the fact that my record shopping will soon be done almost exclusively online. Where’s the fun in that? Anyway, Selectadisc has always been a shining beacon of how to run a record shop – I’ve said as much here and Nottingham’s Left Lion folk have a tribute here too.

The other thing I felt compelled to mention – admittedly, once again, fuelled by work avoidance – is the new project from Neil Hannon and that fat beardy bloke from Pugwash, called Thomas Pugwash. While his voice is largely unremarkable, the splendidly, well, splendid voice of Mr Hannon delivers the goods aplenty on the Myspace page for this new venture, charmingly called, The Duckworth Lewis Method, as in cricket. The album’ll be out around the time of The Ashes for prime cash-in factor. They appear to have forgotten that neither of them sell many records, but it’s quite sweet logic, nonetheless. Anyway, whatever the sales figures, the track they uploaded yesterday, ‘Gentlemen and Players’ is sublime. I’ve not been able to stop playing it since I first heard it. I’m playing it now, actually. Go listen yourself. Click here.

Should probably do some work now.

Oooh, it’s lunch time.

 

A Short Post About Nothing Much

Went to work this morning with a spring in my step and left truly brow-beaten and wondering why such a frivolous mood had been present nine hours earlier. As a result, I required a large dose of loud, familiar music to sort me out. I’ve now moved on to a live version of ‘The ChangingMan‘ by Weller and The Needles‘ ‘Girl I Used To Know‘, but my initial came from my beloved Neil Hannon and The Divine Comedy.
To celebrate this, some spiffing Ver Tubeness featuring Sir Niles Hammond of Irelandshire.