Alternative music reviews

May 1, 2009

PJ Harvey and John Parish

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I had forgotten how good PJ Harvey can be. I can remember being very impressed with the first Peel sessions and her first two albums. I have only connected occasionally since then – I liked “Stories From the City, Stories From The Sea” but could “White Chalk” made no impression on me. The latest album “A Woman A Man Walked By” sounded more to my taste as it was said to be the harder side of her music.

I found three tracks that really stood out. Pig Will Not is interspersed with Polly Jean barking like a dog – surprisingly an attractive proposition. The title track A Woman A Man Walked By has some very choice words. I thought of sending it to my sister to listen to but I was worried that my Mum would be there. It occurred to me that this must be the meaning of those Parental Advisory Stickers – don’t play it in front of your parents.

Finally Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen is a fascinating song. I assume it is John Parish who has come up with the acoustic guitar patterns that give it an Eastern quality. PJ Harvey intones words about Erica and Danielle and a countdown. The story has ambiguity, is it a children’s game of hide and seek or something darker? The vocal performance certainly suggests something more passionate and erotic and unhappy. Simple, powerful and evocative.

Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen by PJ Harvey

Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen by PJ Harvey and John Parish (Clip)

April 29, 2009

The Whispertown 2000

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Swim by The Whispertown 2000Los Angeles band The Whispertown 2000 have been turning a few heads in Alt-Country circles with their latest album “Swim”. Morgan Nagler’s vocals do remind me a lot of Cat Power but with added soul and risk-taking. It is her drawled delivery that first turns my head. The songs are mostly Country-based and there’s a few traditional style ones like From The Start/Jamboree but there’s another element that creeps in. Sometimes it’s a melody, sometimes a guitar sound that hints at a Rock or Grunge or even Soul influence.

It is on the penultimate track Ebb and Flow that I find something I didn’t even know I was looking for. It starts off sounding like Portishead trip hop, and then the drum gets hit and a little later there’s a fuzzed up guitar. I keep thinking of band names to try and explain little parts of the sound like Big Brother Holding Co and Chicago. This song just encompasses so many hooks similar to things I have loved from the past 40 years and all put together with a few rough edges (because I hate slick and clean). The best 4 minutes of music I have heard this year.

Ebb and Flow by The Whispertown 2000

Ebb and Flow by The Whispertown 2000 (Clip)

The Whispertown 2000

April 24, 2009

Cubehead

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Cubehead are from Philadelphia and use synths and guitars to make a lot of noise. I’ve been listening to three track demo quite a bit since they sent it to me last year. No Kuller has great distorted, impassioned shouted vocals over anelectronic backing with lots of feedback-type noise. The Ice Block Song is a guitar-based rock song with the desperation slider set to 11. But it is the instrumental Catacombs is the track I have kept returning to with it’s thick synth arpeggio’s, flavoursome distortion, and very melodic overlay.

Well, that was how it all was until I saw this video of Cubehead playing No Kuller on YouTube. Suddenly I understand the song and how difficult it must be to capture the essence when recording. Suddenly I wish I had been there in the audience.

Cubehead on myspace

April 17, 2009

Snowflakes and Carwrecks by Hauschka

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Snowflakes and Carwrecks by HauschkaMany years ago, when the world was young, I bought Academy In Peril by John Cale, his second solo album. I suppose I was looking for some more of what Cale had given The Velvert Underground and so I didn’t imagine I would get a ‘classical music’ album. As an album it was almost certainly responsible for the interest I developed in the contemporary classical scene. The highlights of this album were two solo piano tracks, Brahms and Academy In Peril that fascinated me for many years. They both consist of a solo piano being played simply and slowly but somehow time seems to slow down when you listen to them.

I get a very similar effect with some of the tracks on Hauschka’s latest EP (7 tracks totalling 39 minutes). It must be doing wonders for my blood pressure. Snowflakes and Carwrecks has a hypnotic sadness provided by the string duo that interplays with the precussive effect of the prepared piano. Motifs are developed but in an organic way rather than the near-mechanical sequences of Phillip Glass. The tracks are all taken from the Ferndorf sessions and I am even more impressed with this EP than the full album. This is music to immerse yourself in.

Hauberg by hauschka

Hauberg by Hauschka (Clip)

Hauschka on myspace

March 11, 2009

Tangleweed

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Tangleweed are an Americana five-piece from Chicago who have a recent album “Most Folk Heroes Started Out As Criminals”. The fiddle and banjo give away that they play a good bit of Bluegrass. It is quality stuff that reeks of authenticity – this band really knows their musical history. But there is more than history here – songs like Trishanku’s Heaven and California are great additions to an American songbook.

On a few of the tracks, Tangleweed demonstrate some irish folk roots music. In particular they cover a traditional song (once performed by Ewan McColl, I believe) Join The British Army. Now, I’m not very keen on people going “Too ra loo ra loo ra loo”; okay as background in a crowded pub maybe but I have great prejudice against all of that ‘finger in the ear’ cliché of folk. However, after immensely enjoying this track I can now say: if you have to “Too ra loo ra loo ra loo” then this is the way to “Too ra loo ra loo ra loo”.

Join The British Army by Tangleweed

Join The British Army by Tangleweed (Clip)

Tangleweed

February 12, 2009

Stuck On The Corner With Todd Snider

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Peace Queer by Todd SniderPop/Rock music is a very narrow, unambitious field of human endeavour. Most of the time it is just a variation on the same theme – 4/4 or 3/4 time and verse/chorus/verse/chorus/verse/chorus/chorus with rhyming lyrics. Someone like Lou Reed may have written Heroin and Black Angel’s Death Song but most of his output has been the classic pop song structure that he learnt when he was staff songwriter at Pickwick records in the early 60’s.

A perfect example of fine songwriting within a traditional song structure would be from Todd Snider’s latest album “Peace Queer”. The song Stuck On the Corner (Prelude to a Heart Attack) is nothing new musically. In fact it reminds me of Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues and is just that sort of basic Boogie that could be played any time in the past fifty years. The artistry comes in how the music swings and particularly in the lyrics. Todd tells a tale of a man trying to get along in the modern world. He goes to work and gets lectured at on the need to work harder whilehis wife and daughter are buying things to impress the neighbours and he finds those kids of today know nothing about anything – little bits of paranoia seep out threatening to explode. Parents will understand this song.

Stuck On The Corner by Todd Snider

Stuck On The Corner (Prelude To A Heart Attack) by Todd Snider (Clip)

Todd Snider on MySpace

February 10, 2009

To Lose My Life by White Lies

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WhiteSomeone of advanced age such as me can place White Lies exactly. They are The Teardrop Explodes in the practice sessions before the first album. They have left behind the desire to experiment as on the Sleeping Gas EP and turned towards a more melodic future where the lead singer will be an imperious presence towering above the music. This is hardly a great insight since Harry McVeigh’s voice is so close in tone, range, and phrasing to julian Cope’s – so close that I initially couldn’t be bothered to listen to even a single track right through. A few days later I got to thinking that The Teardrop Explodes had never lived up to their promise – three brilliant singles but then never again reached those intense early heights. So if White Lies gave me an equivalent of an album’s worth of the early brilliance, who am I to complain.

And, sure enough, once I cleared myself of all of those doubts, To Lose My Life is a great album that can happily sit alongside early Bunnymen/Teardrop Explodes/Depeche Mode. In fact, if you played this to a youngster who had never heard these late 70s/early 80s bands then they might well prefer White Lies because it is better produced and more consistent. Perhaps remixing the past, rather than forging the future, means you make less mistakes. So let’s get this straight. I am saying that White Lies will never produce anything as glorious and original as the first two Teardrop Explodes singles. Fine. I’m also certain that they will never match the highlights of Julian Cope’s solo work. But what they do deliver is a stonking album.

To Lose My Life by White Lies

To Lose My Life by White Lies (Clip)

White Lies

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