Alternative music reviews

August 18, 2009

Varshons by The Lemonheads

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Some of my favourite records are by The Lemonheads – I loved “It’s A Shame About Ray” and then went back in time to discover the wonderful (and very different from “Ray”) Pop/Punk of the early days. But I lost interest – perhaps put off by the cult of Evan Dando and his celebrity rather than the music. Now The Lemonheads (just a name for Dando now, from what I can gather) have a collection of covers for our entertainment.

The album is dominated by a Gram Parsons style (and starts with one of his song) but ranges into a vaguely psychedelic sound at times. The cover of Wire’s Fragile is very brave – it almost suceeds in humanising Wire’s characteristic detachment and adding a sort of acoustic grungey quality to the chorus. The GG Allin track Layin’ Up With Linda makes me want to rush out and find out more about the original artist. I love the sound of Dando’s voice in this lower register.

if you are going to cover one of the greatest songs ever written by a legend like Townes Van Zandt then you are facing a big challenge. Dando’s version Waiting Around To Die is really very good. He has a great voice (better than Townes) and delivers the song with conviction.

What covers album wouldn’t be complete with a real stinkers. Dirty Robot certainly fits the bill. Kate Moss over an electro backing. My first reaction was it’s so bad it’s almost good but that has now worn off completely and it is just awful. Thankfully he hands Liv Tyler a less embarassing song and she just about survives a very predictable version of leonard Cohen’s Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye.

In the end, I just feel that Evan Dando has one of the finest voices in Rock but perhaps has too much talent. He can make just about any style of music and it turns out well without him really putting his heart and soul into it. But I like this album more than I like him, if you see what I mean; it is varied and entertaining with some cracking songs.

The Lemonheads

July 17, 2009

The Farm by Dinosaur Jr.

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Farm by Dinosaur JnrContinuing the theme of listening to bands populated by the over 40s, I had a listen to the latest Dinosaur Jr. album “The Farm”. Exactly the same elements that made them such a likeable band in the 90s are there – the constant fuzzed out guitar, J Mascis’s slacker vocalising, and the sort of guitar solos that have similarities to what you can hear in RAWK music. I’m afraid it left me with my normal Dinosaur Jr feeling – everybody should have one album by them just to give them the chance to revel in the sound but buying a second is folly because they do sound similar. If you don’t yet have your compulsory album then “The Farm” is a good one to get – or, as in my case, your album is on vinyl then this can be your more digitally accessible version. I think that is a roundabout way of saying it is amongst the very best of Dinosaur Jr albums.

There’s No Here

There’s No Here by Dinosaur Jr. (Clip)

One big difference between this line up and the original is that Lou Barlow is allowed to play two of his songs. – previously he had left the band to form Sebadoh to play his own material. I really don’t think it works because one track, Your Weather just reminds me of how magnificent Sebadoh were and throws me out of any J Mascis mood. But despite that slight error this is an album of a band that haven’t lost their youthful energy or inspiration. I’m pretty sick of all the old bands getting back together to milk the Slippers and Cardigans brigade of their money but Dinosaur Jr. show themselves to be exceptions because they are actually making worthwhile new music.

Your Weather

Your Weather by Dinosaur Jr. (Clip)

July 10, 2009

The Eternal by Sonic Youth

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The Eternal by Sonic YouthDid you spot what I was really saying in my review of Bill Callaghan’s album? I must promise to be straightforward and say it like it is – there are two brilliant songs and the rest is pretty disposable. Sometimes I like to lose the negative spin and so don’t write it. So if I was to do a review of, say, the latest Sonic Youth album then I wouldn’t mention that they are merely reliving old glories and say instead that they still make a nice noise.

Well, that might have been what I would have wanted to say about recent albums such as “Sonic Nurse” but the latest one, “The Eternal”, is just brilliant. Tracks such as What We Know and Sacred Trickster are as good as anything Sonic Youth have done since “Daydream Nation”. I would rate Massage The History alongside their best work ever. Their control of the music is effortless, drawing on elements that they have developed over the past 20+ years. It is fun to listen to the songs and figure out exactly which album a track could fit on. Mostly I placed things around the Goo period but Poison Arrow is more suited to whichever Lou Reed album it could have been on.

Sonic Youth have been doing this Rock and Feedback thing for so long that their kids probably say every year, “Mum/Dad, I appreciate you playing Happy Birthday but do you always have to add the 20 minutes of feedback?” (I imagine they all live in a big house together, by the way.) But even in their advanced years, they are still capable of surprises. The short clip I’ve chosen is from the rather cool Malibu Gas Station and the reason I like it is that it is a melody in the verse that strikes me as unusual for Sonic Youth. It’s a tiny detail but they are still moving forward with their music.

Malibu Gas Station by Sonic Youth

Malibu Gas Station by Sonic Youth (Clip)

June 24, 2009

Bill Callahan

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Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle  by Bill CallahanSmog/Bill Callahan first got me hooked when I heard the track Bathysphere with it’s Cello backing and a curiously detached baritone vocal intoning about about childhood dreams of living under the ocean. It was magical and reinforced by by the rest of the Wild Love album. I stayed wrapped in their embrace for many years marvelling at some of the finest examples of songwriting you could ever hope to hear. Eventually we parted ways and after hearing the Knock Knock album I let the relationship drop.

On hearing that the latest solo album by Smog’s Bill Callahan featured a return to use of strings and horns as adornment I decided to see what was going on now. The album Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle contains two stand out tracks that rate alongside the best that Smog ever did. All Thoughts Are Prey To Some Beast is an entrancing poetic song that still hides the meaning behind the metaphor but you know it is about desire. The simpler song is Eid Ma Clack Shaw. Have you ever woken up in the night convinced you have found the answer to some great problem? On the more mundane level, I once woke up at 5 am on a Sunday morning with the design of a Haematology Laboratory Computer System in my head. I wrote it down and it proved a real success when I implemented it. Bill Callahan is a bit deeper than me so he wrestles with death’s pain and is shown the way to overcome the sadness. The answer is a song and he writes it down and then reads it back in the morning. All he finds are nonsense words. This is delivered with that magnificent voice, the controlled phrasing, and pulsating musical backing (including a klaxon sound just for fun). A masterclass.

Eid Ma Clack Shaw by Bill Callahan

Eid Ma Clack Shaw by Bill Callahan (Clip)

June 17, 2009

Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard

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Em Are I by Jeffrey Lewis & The JunkyardJeffrey Lewis’s last album “12 Crass Songs” was the first album I bought after being cleared of the debts that had led me to rely on submitted music for about four years. It was an intriguing prospect to have Crass songs delivered by a New York quirky folkie and it was a revelation, particularly to someone like me who had all the early Crass records, to finally hear the lyrics away from the original stodgy Punk delivery. I didn’t get on as well with his back catalogue however so I regarded it as a one-off show of brilliance.

His latest album “‘Em Are I” contains all of the same things I have struggled with in Jeffrey Lewis – the nasal voice, the conversational style of singing that uses schoolyard cadences instead of melody. But behind everything is the feeling that someone is baring their soul (admittedly with a lot of musical and lyrical whimsy). This is certainly an album that deals with a break-up and behind the humour is real disappointment, and that I can relate to.

In a world where bands plunder the 50 years of rock music available and mix different elements of the past, it is rare to hear an original voice and Jeffrey Lewis is one. Sometimes he seems just too knowing and aware of the musical deconstruction he is performing but it is always intriguing. One song on the album hits me like a sledgehammer (in the lyrics he says it is written by Jack who I assume is his brother who plays in the band) The Upside-Down Cross. It’s a full band piece with drums, electric guitar, piano and horns and is less playful melodically than much of the album but that just makes it work beautifully as a ‘let’s freak out a bit’ kind of song.

The Upside-down Cross

The Upside-down Cross by Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard (Clip)

Jeffrey Lewis on MySpace

June 11, 2009

Deus ex Machina

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Florence & The Machine, St. Philips Church, Salford, Monday 1st June 2009.

It is sometimes interesting to go and see a band of which you know very little, as, without carrying any preconceptions or media baggage, it gives a blank canvas on which to overlay ones prejudices. Within five minutes of Florence & The Machine taking the stage, I had them tagged as media-friendly goth-lite, with a wilfully eccentric edge. Mid-period Banshee wannabees. Florence has a cracking pair of lungs, but strip away the harp, and the androgynous numanoid keyboard/violin, and it’s a pretty drab standard rock backing, and I was reminded of other famous-for-15-minutes bands featuring “charismatic” female vocalists (Curve, All About Eve, etc…). Also, the church venue doesn’t lend itself to amplified rock music. Whereas the natural echo enhances the sparse acoustics of (for example) Laura Marling, here it creates an aural sludge where the only winners are the drums and Florence’s voice. In-between song twee chat referencing coffins, death and other goth leitmotifs, as well as casual nods to the Hacienda and the Mondays don’t help. And yet…following an instantly forgettable final number, they returned for an encore, and played ‘Blinding’. Maybe it was the setting sun, maybe it was the atmosphere, but suddenly it all worked, and for 5 spellbinding (Oo-err, lazy journo Banshee’s reference) minutes I was transfixed. Only for the mood to be dispelled by a turgid version of The Source’s none-too-originally inspiring ‘You got the love’.

I await their appearance on a Banshee’s tribute compilation. I’d like to hear their take on ‘Overground’…

Review by Big Dave

May 18, 2009

The Musical Saw

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The Earth And All That Is In It By The Roe Family SingersIt must be many years since I last heard a musical saw, perhaps on a TV programme like Opportunity Knocks in the 70s. It seemed like a purely novelty instrument and just made a funny noise.

So, I was a little surprised to hear that warbly sound on the album “The Earth and All That Is In It” by The Roe Family Singers. You would imagine a band with that name, and a predeliction for banjo music and musical saw to be just a cutesy bunch of hicks from the sticks. But, have no fear, once again I have gone to visit Gothic Country. It’s the sort of place where the dead bodies rise from the ground if you don’t bury them deep enough. Many of the tracks wouldn’t sound out of place on a “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack album but the extra lyrical twists (and an entrancing female voice) make it very special.

The musical saw is used on some of the strongest stracks. On Shallow Grave it becomes the spooky backdrop that evokes the dark creepiness of back yards where zombies might roam. White Horse is a grim tale of Heroin addiction and some of its affects (killing an unborn child for example) and the musical saw adorns it like a wasp that won’t go away. The closest equivalent I can think of to the way the musical saw is used here is Eno in Roxy Music or Allen Ravenstine in Pere Ubu and the way they used un-musical sysnthesiser noise to unsettle the listener.

White Horse by The Roe Family Singers

White Horse by The Roe Family Singers (Clip)

After dipping my feet into that particular well, I decided to catch up with The Scaramange Six’s latest epic – the album “Songs Of Prey”. You can bet the down-to-earth Northeners aren’t going to messsing about with Woodworking tools. No chance….

Songs Of Prey #2 by The Scaramanga Six

Songs Of Prey #2 by The Scaramanga Six (Clip)

The Roe Family Singers

The Scaramanga Six

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