Alternative music reviews

June 20, 2008

The Simple Carnival

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Me and my arrowI was watching My Name Is Earl on the TV last night and suddenly there was a song I recognised used as backing to a scene where Earl shoots an arrow into the air (and it then skewers him on its way down). The song was Me and My Arrow by Harry Nilsson which is covered by The Simple Carnival on the EP of the same name that I have been listening to for a few weeks.

Me And My Arrow

Me And My Arrow (clip) by The Simple Carnival

This is an EP of Pop so, well, Poppy that it almost defies belief. But this isn’t the cheesy attempt at humour of Mike Flowers, but seems to be a serious love of the sweet melody and gentle dance rhythm. It is the product of one man: Jeff Boller, who clearly has an ear for a good tune and a wry sense of humour as well.

When I was growing up there was a clear conflict between Pop music and Rock music. Pop meant shallow while Rock was ‘heavy’ and ‘deep’. And even now melodic beat combos still stick to their Indie credentials and try to fool people that they are a pretty smile and a sweet rhyming couplet. That leads me to a problem – I still feel that way. I say ‘feel’ because I get a physical reaction to too much saccharine tunefulness. I understand that to openly present pure Pop is really the more radical option but I am old and reactionary now.

The video to Really Really Weird

So, I am not saying I like this record. But there are enough melodic hooks here in amongst what my ears hear as ‘cheese’ to convince me that Jeff has considerable talent. If you like a bit of Beach Boys harmonies then you really should get acquainted with The Simple Carnival.

June 14, 2008

Laura Marling – St Philips Church, Salford, June 10 2008

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St Philips Church SalfordNo doubt about it – the venue’s the star tonight. St Philips with St Stevens is situated in what remains of old Salford, and is a gorgeous 1820’s building that is still in good condition. Contemporary Salford intrudes, however, in the form of warnings to keep Satnavs hidden (and the inevitable post-gig smashed windows). Still, good luck to the forward-thinking vicar, and the little bar serving local real ale was another nice touch.

I’ll try to avoid “waif-like” and “vulnerable” clichés, but she’s a slight, short-haired young lass, and her introductory ‘Rebecca’ was performed solo, unmiked and unamped, with the audience giving total respect. Her clear vibrato-tinged tones were enhanced by the church acoustics, and she continued with just her and an acoustic guitar, until the rest of the band gradually joined her on the altar. Sparse, sensitive backing gives a stripped-down feel, allowing the underlying melancholy (if not morbidity) of her lyrics to come through, with ‘Night Terror’ sending a shiver down my particular spine, before the evening ends with a jaunty ‘Alas I cannot swim’, done as an advance encore.

Any female folk(-ish) singer-songwriter gets the usual comparisons; Beth Orton, even Sandy Denny. My own points of reference were the Decemberist’s quieter moments, and maybe a nod to Throwing Muses’ Kristin Hersh. It’s pleasing (to me, at any rate) to see the decreasing influence of the alt.country/Americana scene (although she cites Will Oldham as a major influence) in favour of yet another native folk-based revival. She’s only 18 – watch this space….

See a video of the song Night Terror

Review by Big Dave

June 12, 2008

Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

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Dig, Lazarus, DigIt would be very easy to dismiss this album as “just another Nick Cave album”. He has returned from the astonishing Grinderman to his normal method of music making. Most of the songs fit the pattern of a relaxed bass/drum groove while Nick intones his tales of America over the top using Blues vocal phrasing.

The thing is a half-decent Nick Cave album is probably as good as anything that will be released this year. If this was an album by a new singer/band then it would be lauded as brilliant but expectations are always high for Old Nick. So the critic in me wants to tell you that there are very few tracks that would make it onto a best of Nick Cave retrospective while the music fan in me just enjoys listening to more new Nick Cave songs. I really like the relaxed sensuality of Hold On To Yourself with it’s twangy guitar and Nick’s voice seems to be touched with sadness like he’d been crying earlier. Today’s Lesson is like the old stager’s reply to Iggy’s Real Good Time – not from the first person point of view but a lecherous observer.

Midnight Man by Nick Cave

Midnight Man(clip) by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

There’s nothing to change the world here (that has already been done) but there’s a haunting voice, brilliant musicians, and tales of debauchery to keep you warm at night.

Nick Cave on Myspace

May 7, 2008

Consolers Of The Lonely by The Raconteurs

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Consolers Of The LonelyI got Consolers Of The Lonely by The Raconteurs on the strength of the reviews and the fact I like Jack White. It has led me to question whether I should trust reviews again. In fact the only ‘good’ review was in The Times and that said “the presiding maxim … is, when in doubt, turn it up and shout”. Now, that tells me the opposite – there will be some good tracks here. In truth there are only four tracks I like and those are pure Jack White/White Stripes sound alikes. Some of the other songs have me hitting the skip control because they sound like out-takes from a Dennis Waterman album. I’m probably being cruel but some of the lyrics and rhymes are just embarrassing.

The saving grace is the song Carolina Drama. It is a tale worthy of Nick Cave, mixing poverty, violence, and the American way of Life and Death. The mother’s boyfriend is no good and one day is seen beating up the Preacher (“that must be my daddy”) and Billy grabs the nearest thing, a milk bottle and uses it so “the boyfriend fell down dead for good”. The family is reunited and Billy proposes heading off to Tennessee. Then, the moment that will have audiences jumping and singing along, the 10 year old walks in holding the milkman’s hat and a bottle singing “La la la la, la la la la, yeah”. Bloody genius.

Carolina Drama

Carolina Drama(clip) byThe Raconteurs

April 29, 2008

I Believe in Karma by Paul Hawkins & Thee Awkward Silences

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I Believe In KarmaThis is the second release I have been sent by Jezus Factory Records featuring Paul Hawkins & Thee Awkward Silences. It’s now sinking in that there is a maverick talent on the loose and if he’s coming to a town near you then look out – most people will want to run away but a select few will revel in this chaotic ranting (me included).

I Believe In Karma

I Believe In Karma (clip) by Paul Hawkins & Thee Awkward Silences

For me it’s that moment when Paul Hawkins sings “I can’t even remember how the next line goes, La La LaLa La La La” that makes this song (like that wonderful moment in School’s Out when Alice sings “I can’t even think of a word that rhymes”). The other track on the promo is the slower, more considered My Darling Frankenstein. It’s a tale of a man who has built a perfect woman (or monster as others call her) to reproduce the best of previous girlfriends such as ‘I see Serena in your movements, I see Sophie in your eyes, you’ve the same expression Claire once had when I used to tell her lies’. A twisted, funny, and perverted solution to the pain of lost love.

I won’t be lazy and just pick on the influences mentioned on MySpace – comparisons with a current figure like Nick Cave just don’t explain much. At times I think it sounds like an angry John Otway, but really the vehemence in the vocal and musical delivery is more like the sort of thing I could imagine the late, great Alex Harvey doing if he had grown up listening to Punk.

Paul Hawkins & Thee Awkward Silences

April 24, 2008

Left by Black Cow

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Left by Black CowIt was quite a shock to my delicate musical constitution to start listening to this album and suddenly be confronted with harmonies from a lost age. It took me a while to believe it but there were vocal harmonies of the sort last touted by Steely Dan. Despite some lingering affection for that band’s Pretzel Logic album I was unsure I wanted to hear more of the same. I needn’t have worried, the music includes loads of alt guitar that Bob Mould would have been proud of. As the album progresses, it takes on its own special character of songs of experience and artistry.

She’s Upset by Black Cow

She’s Upset (clip) by Black Cow

The album is a labour of love that has taken many years to write and record in between “births, deaths, marriages, divorces, and piano lessons”. But this is not self-indulgence with guitar parts being added incessantly, instead there is a lightness of touch, a paring down of each track until every note is just what is needed to approach perfection. It is so beautifully put together that you have to just sit back and admire it. More importantly, you are rewarded with a stunning meld of musicianship and melody.

Black Cow on MySpace

April 14, 2008

Walking Through Houses by The Scaramanga Six

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Walking Through HousesTwo big reasons to mention The Scaramanga Six: a new single and I finally saw them live!

I went to The Wheatsheaf in Oxford on Friday where they were the support act so it was a bit of a curtailed set but plenty long enough to make a judgement. That judgement is this is a great live band. What the live performance added to their intense music was a sense of humour and playfulness. From the opening intro of “We have come from up North to teach you the chord of E” (which they proceeded to do) to the last moments of I Wear My Heart On My Sleeve they entertained and energised.

Towards the end a select group of people, who I recognised as being there to see the other bands, were dancing – although dancing to the Scaramangas is not that easy since they mix crescendos with silences but a valiant attempt was made and underlying rhythms were picked up on before the head twirling could begin again. It was a compliment to a band that can move you in many ways.

The latest single is Walk Through Houses. The title track reminds me of the early iLiKETRAINS singles with its prevailing sense of paranoia but with all the panache and variation that The Scaramanga Six always provide. I Can See A Murder is a near-hysterical story of a killer with Tex-Mex guitar and vocal harmonies that could have come from Phantom Of The Opera.

Walking Through Houses by The Scaramanga Six

Walking Through Houses (clip) by The Scaramanga Six

Sometimes as I listen back to the last thirty plus years of music I bemoan the fact that many bands today lack ambition and keep to a very narrow agenda and don’t explore what wonders can be done with harmonies, thunderous guitars, and changes in rhythm. No-one can ever accuse The Scaramanga Six of lacking ambition and exciting you with every musical trick in the book.

The Scaramanga Six

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