April Releases – Reviews round up

Well, that was quite a month. I’ll be posting up soon an in-depth account of what became ‘Record Store Week’ for me, kicking off with the big day at the supreme Rise in Bristol. However, sorting out the feature, which appeared in a slightly rejigged form over on Drowned In Sound, about the shops’ view of the big day meant that the monthly posting of my reviews got lost somewhere. So, unsurprisingly after that last sentence, here they are.

April Reviews 1

ALESSI’S ARK – ‘Time Travel’ (BELLA UNION)

A bewitching stage presence and an angelic vocal make Alessi’s Ark very easy to love. Finely crafted folk is elevated towards greatness by the stunning voice of Alessi Laurent-Marke. ‘Maybe I Know’ tells the tale of a cheated upon partner realising that the gossip is all about her and will break your heart. It’s the standout moment on an album which rarely dips below excellent and the old school songwriting and airy, summery production will leave you utterly spellbound.

Now, the publication of this rankled with me a little. I hate giving scores in the first place but I understand why it’s sometimes necessary. However, when your score of 9 is subbed down to only 7, it’s a little misrepresentative of what I actually think of the record. I’m keen to write more about it but it always seems a bit odd to essentially review an album twice, even though this was such a brief piece. However, I’ve done it with Gorillaz (sort of – see below) so maybe I will. Either way, rest assured that this is one of the most perfect, summery records I’ve heard this year so far and that it will charm the pants of anybody who loves melodic, beautifully sung and delicately produced music. Get it.

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The Just Played Verdict: Gorillaz ‘The Fall’

Forgive the language, but Damon Albarn is an unutterably talented fucker. Regular readers will remember The Good, The Bad & The Queen taking the prime spot in the Just Played countdown of the best albums of the previous decade, as well as ‘Think Tank‘ appearing in the top five also. Left to his own devices, he creates all kinds of spellbinding music and even found time in 2010 to squeeze in a new single by Blur. ‘Fool’s Day’ was a fine addition to that particular band’s discography and there’s talk of another for this year’s Record Store Day. The musical identity of Albarn’s with which I’ve had occasional issues is Gorillaz and that’s not to say I haven’t loved much of what he has released under that name. The problem lies with the inconsistency, by virtue of being made up of numerous collaborators, of the albums. ‘Plastic Beach’ has some great moments but it never really grabbed me as a complete unit. I rather like Albarn in ‘twatting about’ mode and found his vinyl only ‘Democrazy‘ release fascinating and really rather enjoyable. All of which means that the Christmas Day release of ‘The Fall’ was a source of excitement without the need for any sprouts on the side.

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Made on an iPad during this autumn’s Gorillaz tour of America, this hastily constructed, bleepy sketchbook of a record is a delight. If you fall on the wanker side of the ‘Albarn – genius or wanker?’ debate then this will only serve to infuriate you even more but if you tend to give everything he releases a fair chance then ‘The Fall’ may strike you as the last important release of 2010, rather than a charming freebie. Unsurprisingly, it’s a largely electronic affair but even the abstract instrumental pieces like ‘Aspen Forest’ are beautiful, lulling tunes. Who knew this was even vaguely possible on an iPad? I only bought one because it was nice and shiny whereas Damon appears to be able to operate it like a mid-range recording studio. By the time it reaches the end of its fifteen tracks you’ll have forgotten that it was made in such a basic fashion and, whisper it now, I might actually prefer it to ‘Plastic Beach’. Ok, there’s no ‘On Melancholy Hill‘ here but there are plenty of Albarn vocals and that is reason enough to lend it your ears. ‘Revolving Doors’ is blessed with one of those floaty, aching Damon performances which made ‘Hong Kong’, ‘Out Of Time’ and most of TGTB&TQ so utterly lovely.

And then there’s ‘Hillbilly Man’, all looped low key guitar refrains to begin with before the squelchy sound used to such great effect on ‘Doncamatic‘ makes a rather more laid-back appearance. It’s a curious beast, evoking memories of the more odd moments of the Gorillaz debut in part, and it serves to underline the fact that ‘The Fall’ should be treated as an album in its own right rather than as a throwaway download freebie. It’s not leaping around waving like its major label brothers and it is, entirely in keeping with a record recorded whilst a long way from home, a rather more introspective affair, but there’s much to enjoy and plenty to love. ‘Detroit‘ is a buoyant instrumental piece to cheer the soul while ‘The Parish Of Space Dust’ is an oddly moving audio collage, sampling American radio in place of verses ahead of a double tracked, swooning Albarn chorus. It’s magical.

‘The Fall’ will likely end up as a footnote to ‘Plastic Beach’, just as the near-perfect ‘Hong Kong’ quietly slipped out on a War Child compilation and received minimal attention, but consider yourself notified that that would be a crime. Seek it out, turn it up and see what you make of it. It deserves that much, at the very least.

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Wittering Wednesdays – Plastic Beach and a dog in a bath

I spent much of last weekend with the new Rufus Wainwright album, ‘All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu’, and I’m happy to tell you that it’s a charming and understated little record. I know, I never thought I’d type that about Wainwright either, but here it is: a collection of twelve songs featuring Rufus and his piano. It features some of his most beautiful singing to date along with complex piano figures, similar to those found on parts of ‘Poses’. Some songs feature guest lyricist Bill Shakespeare who, it turns out, can bash together a decent sounding phrase or two. Album closer ‘Zebulon’, a live version of which appeared on The Guardian’s site a few weeks ago, is spellbinding. I can’t recommend it enough. An alternative performance can be clicked on below.

The need to ensure the Rufus review was done on time meant that a number of delightful promos that landed towards the tail end of last week sat on the side for a while. I’ve previously tweeted about Allo Darlin’ who, despite a truly chronic band name, make some lovely, melodic indie pop. The include Aussie legends The Go-Betweens in amongst their influences and that should give you some idea about their commitment to songcraft. Well worth keeping an ear on. The album will appear in June and I’ll endeavour to say more about it nearer that time.

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Tracey Thorn is back in May with ‘Love And Its Opposite’, an album which eschews some of the bleepier aspects of previous outings and presents a record of chiming, mature pop that sounds blinking great to me. I’ve always loved her voice but sometimes the material hasn’t quite lived up to it. Certainly not the case here and, but for the fact that I can’t imagine how the general public might be whipped into such a frenzy, this record deserves to sell well. As it is, I suspect it’ll end up being a lesser-known favourite amongst those with discerning lug’oles. Get in ahead of the game with a free download of the track ‘Oh, The Divorces!’ which you can claim here.

The rest of the promo jiffy bag was less obviously fantastic fare, but I imagine at least a couple more of them will get a mention here soon enough. Fabulous one man music cloud, Keith KenniffHelios, Goldmund – has had some professionally made editions done up of his previously CD-R only website releases ‘Unleft (Unreleased Vol. 1) and ‘Live At The Triple Door’. You can order from him direct here and expect to receive your discs rapidly and wrappedly. Did I get away with that? Hmmm. Anyway, they arrive neatly wrapped with a little bow around them. Charming. The music is, just as you might expect by now, ethereal goodness that tops up the soul and massages the ears. Highly, highly recommended. Should you need further convincing, here’s the old FUTUREMUSIC piece from last year.

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As I type, ‘Plastic Beach’, the latest opus from Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, is blaring away and I have to say, it certainly has its moments. Mark E Smith’s “where’s north from ‘ere” at the start of ‘Glitter Freeze’ is, perhaps, enough to justify buying the whole bloody record. Add in the just-the-right-side-of-annoying ‘Superfast Jellyfish’, childishly lolloping ‘Some Kind Of Nature’ (replete with Lou Reed) and the chaotic ‘Sweepstakes’ and things are looking up. ‘On Melancholy Hill’ is the latest addition to the Damon Albarn Musical Genius Songbook, a compilation I really should make some day. It is borderline perfect, with its slow-Daft-Punk opening, muffled Damon vocals and innocent background chimes. It makes me smile, and that’s a pretty decent test as far as I’m concerned. At almost an hour, it flies by surprisingly quickly and there is little to make you long for more judicious editing. The vinyl edition can’t come soon enough, but there’s much to like about the CD/DVD Experience edition so I’d treat yourself if I were you. You look like you deserve it.

A few shocks this week. Firstly, it turns out I love the album that is currently top of the UK sales chart. I feel completely out of step with what old people call the ‘pop charts’ these days, so to find that Ellie Goulding’s ‘Lights’, which may well end up being the pop album of 2010, is the best selling album in the country, despite me really liking it, took me by surprise. Were all of the supermarkets’ stocks of Michael Buble albums on holiday for a week? What happened? Anyway, forget some of the slightly sneering backlash that some corners of the music press are opting for and embrace an album full of lovely melodies and outstanding production.

The second shock was rather more severe. It was caused by this picture:

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This is the actual cover of the new album by The Divine Comedy! What can you say? Loving the gong at the back of shot and the return of the ‘A Short Album About Love’ era logo design though. Till next time…

31. Gorillaz – Demon Days

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The first Gorillaz album had its moments but I don’t think anybody quite realised what sort of a musical juggernaut was heading our way with its follow up, ‘Demon Days’. Although the guest performers were stacked high, it felt very much like a Damon Albarn solo record, with the emphasis on crowd-pleasing but refreshingly complex pop music.

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Whether you’re ensnared by the gorgeous vocal on ‘Every Planet We Reach Is Dead’ or the more than a little rough around the edges refrains from Shaun Ryder on ‘DARE’, it’s hard to listen to this album and not sit back and simply marvel at what an accomplished record it is. ‘Feel Good Inc’, as a signal of the return of Gorillaz, presented an act that was a not inconsiderable leap along from the 2001 incarnation which had offered up the rather playful ‘19-2000’. This was pop with balls and Albarn was ready to take over the world.

It’s one of those albums I always think I should play more. Because I end up grouping it as part of Damon’s wider discography, there are often other albums of his I will reach for ahead of it and so it essentially suffers due to the quality of its nearest relations. Listening to it again as I write this, it is, predictably enough, wowing me at every turn and I’m left wondering why it is that ‘Demon Days’ tends to get a number of reverential listens every year but doesn’t get particularly regular plays.

Oddly, what is probably my favourite Gorillaz song of all time doesn’t appear on either of the studio albums released to date. It cropped up, in slightly rejigged form on ‘D Sides’, but originally appeared on the War Child album, ‘Help!’. ‘Hong Kong’ truly is a solo Albarn outing and it is utterly, utterly beguiling and remains one of my absolute favourite songs. You’ll forgive me for crow-barring this in at the end of this piece, but you really should hear it if you never previously have. Try here.