April Reviews

Below can be found the latest instalment of what has become a regular feature. These are the six reviews of April releases I wrote for Clash Magazine which can be found in the print edition that should have just about hit the shelves as you read this. Some very good records in amongst this lot, including a splendid Doves career retrospective and the increasingly marvellous sounding debut from ex-Czars man, John Grant.

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RUFUS WAINWRIGHT – ‘All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu’ (UNIVERSAL)

Never one to hide his emotions previously, Rufus Wainwright offers a sparse but staggeringly heartfelt collection of songs for voice and piano, influenced, at least in part, by the long-term illness and recent passing of his mother. After the suffocating arrangements that dogged parts of his last album, the relative simplicity is welcome. While three Shakespearean sonnets set to music are successful without being showy, Wainwright saves the very best till last. Lyrically, album closer ‘Zebulon’ is endearingly direct, “my mother’s in the hospital, my sister’s at the opera, I’m in love, but let’s not talk about it,” and home to his best vocal performance to date. 8/10

I think I’ve briefly mentioned this record here before, but it’s worth restating how much of a breath of fresh air this is after the overcooked swamp of a record that was ‘Release The Stars’. New converts will not be found, but those who’ve been in love before will be in love again.

DOVES – ‘The Places Between: The Best of Doves’ (HEAVENLY / VIRGIN)

Quietly labouring away for some twelve years, Doves have amassed an outstanding catalogue of work. As a result, the deluxe edition is an essential purchase, with a second disc of b-sides, rarities and the odd album track too good to leave off. Sequenced by the band, both discs are remarkably cohesive; ‘Black And White Town’ and ‘Pounding’ nestle alongside atmospheric monster ‘The Cedar Room’ and new single ‘Andalucia’. The finest of the three new songs, ‘Blue Water’, kicks off disc two in style, deploying the same hiccupping drum pattern that served early single ‘Here It Comes’ so well. ‘The Places Between’ is a beguiling celebration of truly excellent music. 9/10

The new tracks on this make it well worth seeking out as it is, but the second disc is a tour de force in showing what Doves are really capable of. Stitching together b-sides, album tracks, session recordings and a few unreleased moments, it is a quite staggering listen and proof if it be needed that they are one of our great bands of the last ten years or so. If you have one of their previous albums on CD, click here to get £2 off the special edition.

JOHN GRANT– ‘Queen Of Denmark’ (BELLA UNION)

There’s a chugging seventies soft-rock quality to this record, giving it a warmth that’s hard to resist. The entire album’s beautifully measured musical backdrop is especially noteworthy, provided as it is by Midlake and, yes, that makes it as good as you might expect. ‘Queen Of Denmark’ is a luxurious sounding collection but what sets it apart from so many decent sounding folk-rock albums is the rich drawl of Grant’s baritone voice. Sweeping, epic ballads are his forte, but there’s something ludicrously charming about the skulking ‘Chicken Bones’, which sounds like a Scissor Sisters track played at half-speed. Odd though it seems, that’s a good thing. 7/10

An example of an album continuing to grow on me after reviewing, this one. I’d already sussed that it’s a good ‘un, but I’ve kept coming back to this and would now be tempted to budge it up to at least an 8. Nagging melodies and beautiful musicianship make this an absolute must. Simon at Bella Union reckons the vinyl edition will be something pretty special too.

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SHE & HIM – ‘Volume Two (DOUBLE SIX)

Sometimes it’s nice to find music that doesn’t require five listens before a tune emerges, to hear songs that capture a rapturous love of music and to spend the entire duration of an album grinning like an arse. Ludicrously talented pairing Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward have kept everything that made their debut great and added a little more jangle and some absolutely beautiful vocal effects for this second outing. While Ward is responsible for the arrangements and production, it’s Deschanel who can take all the credit for writing these timeless, sun-kissed pop hugs. ‘In The Sun’ is the masterpiece, but you’ll keep coming back to it all. 9/10

It’s albums like this that make you rue your absolutely miniscule word count. I could have happily rhapsodised about this one for several pages – and may still do at some point. Building on the greatness of the debut, this one is meticulously produced and perfectly suited to the six days of sunshine we’ll get between now and Christmas.

LUCKY SOUL – ‘A Coming Of Age’ (RUFFA LANE)

Marrying bittersweet lyrics with unashamed killer pop hooks is a tricky business. The Smiths were masters of the art form and, while they may not sound especially alike, Lucky Soul share a similar knack for musical alchemy. Singer Ali Howard possesses an absolutely adorable voice, knowing exactly when to go through the gears and when to rein herself in, and The Smiths comparison holds up with such lyrical delights as ‘some say I’m schizophrenic, but I walk in single file’. Part pop, part soul, part country and with a sprinkle of the classic girl-group sound, Lucky Soul make music to soundtrack the good times. 8/10

If you haven’t already figured out that I love this one, then you need to do some reading. Click here for the FUTUREMUSIC piece from earlier this year.

PEARLY GATE MUSIC – ‘Pearly Gate Music’ (BELLA UNION)

Brother of Fleet Fox and fully-fledged solo artist J. Tillman, Zach Tillman opted for a more atmospheric stage name before foisting his recordings upon the listening public. The moniker serves this record well, for it’s an often gravelly, proudly lo-fi collection of beat-up folk. There’s plenty here to suggest that a few albums down the line Tillman could be responsible for something genuinely special, but even this wilfully shambolic collection has its moments. ‘I Was A River’ is a beautiful meditation on love lost while ‘Golden Funeral’ is an opening track so hymnal and atmospheric that it makes it difficult for anything else to come close. 6/10

I suspect that this one could have long-term appeal. The sort of record that after living with it for six months, it all clicks into place. There are moments of beauty to be found, even on the first play, but it’s not as consistent as most records bearing that reliable Bella Union moniker. On that note, the new album by The Acorn, ‘No Ghost’, is bloody marvellous and due in June.

2010 on the record

Song Of The Day 22: She & Him – In The Sun

One of 2008’s finest albums, ‘Volume One’ by She & Him, arrived in my world a few weeks from the end of that particular year and yet it charmed the proverbial musical pants off me. I remember bunging the disc in the car CD player as set out from the shopping centre car park and five minutes later I was wondering how I had gone this long without giving that record any attention. It soon became a firm favourite, deserving with hindsight to have been much higher in the end of year list, and ‘Volume One’ made a very respectable showing in 40 From The Noughties at Number 21.

The magical pairing of Zooey Deschanel (She) and M. Ward (Him) has been reunited for what I’m hoping will be a fitting companion to that wonderful debut, cunningly entitled ‘Volume Two’. It’ll be arriving in the UK at the start of April, but consider your appetite sufficiently whetted by this teaser track, ‘In The Sun’, which was offered up for download briefly by those Pitchfork types, but which you’ll like be able to acquire with a cursory search of music blogs. While you do that, stream the audio from YouTube below. Classic song writing to make you smile. You’ll love it.

21. She & Him – Volume One

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I was very, very late to the party on this one. Every year, just prior to Christmas, we tend to pop up to Leeds for a bit of festive shopping day during which I invariably manage one or two actually presents and a few, not inconsiderably proportioned, bags of records. This time last year, give or take a day or two, I found myself rifling through the racks in the delightful Jumbo Records, looking for any number of different things that I’d been meaning to check out at some point, only to have my attention drawn to the simple but beautiful cover of ‘Volume One’, the debut offering by the double act of M. Ward – a splendid solo artist in his own right and a Folky Monster when given the chance – and Zooey Deschanel, a successful actress and a person with a funny name. I was partly drawn in due to the similarities between this cover and that of one of my all-time favourite albums, Nina Simone’s ‘Here Comes The Sun’ and partly as I’d seen the covered posted a number of times on some of the ‘Now Playing’ threads on a couple of music-themed message boards I visit. Something about it clicked and, having little knowledge of what it actually sounded like, on to the pile it went.

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As we slowly crawled our way along a gridlocked motorway, it was smiles all around as this delightful little record warmed our hearts and soothed our souls. Twice, as it happens, as I was so keen to hear it again as soon as it finished. It made a late showing in last year’s top 20 list, but it really should have been higher and would have been had I not bought it late in December! Sounding partly like a sixties girl group, partly like an upbeat Joni Mitchell and partly like a lot of M. Ward songs performed by a female vocalist, it’s a wonderfully chipper wash of music performed simply for the love of it.

I’ve since realised that it makes a bloody good summer record but, playing it now, it also seems pretty well suited to cold winter nights with its general aura of festive cheer. There’s a hint of the majesty of Karen Dalton on some of the slow songs, particularly ‘Got Me’, while ‘Why Do You Let Me Stay Here’ is one of the most perfectly crafted pop songs you could ever wish to hear. There’s a second volume due out fairly early next year and I’m genuinely rather excited. If you’ve not allowed this gem of a record into your life yet, it might be time to do something about it. Now, time to plan the trip to Leeds to find something that I’ll later realise should have gone in this list.