Reviews I wrote for Inpress
THE FRATELLIS - HERE WE STAND, EMI/Island
It's funny that 'Milk and Honey', the last track on the Fratellis' second album, contains the line "The radio is silent except for wicked bands/Sounding like the last one always in demand." Is singer Jon Fratelli having a go at his contemporaries, or is he acknowledging the utter genericness of his own band?
Originally I was going to start this review by saying "Great, just what the world needs, another NME retro-rock band re-recyling their parents' record collections!" But if these guys honestly believe that they can be a "wicked band" despite "sounding like the last one", then maybe my complaint misses the point. So let's focus on their strengths: The Fratellis really do have quite a knack for stringing different clichés and references together. I honestly love the way that 'Flathead' tempers the infectiously inane cheeriness of its punchy 7/8-time "ba-da-bup-bup-b'da da da" chorus by alternating it with an unsettling groove stolen from the Fall, and then tacks on a nifty guitar solo and a Latin percussion breakdown.
Unfortunately that's not actually on the album I'm supposed to be reviewing, but some tracks on Here We Stand perform similar feats of bricolage. 'Mistress Mable' sounds like Oasis, George Michael, the Knack and the Clash all in one song, and contains virtually a direct quote of the synth bit in Roxy Music's 'Virginia Plain', and 'Tell Me A Lie' goes from stomping glam-metal power chords to a double-time barndance. But unfortunately Jon Fratelli doesn't stick to "ba-da-bup-bup-b'da da" this time and instead tortures us with his atrocious lyrics, while the slick radio rock production sucks all the groove and dynamics out of the band's sound. And I haven't even got to the worst part yet. The most embarrassing songs on this album are the Fratellis' attempts to write Oasis-esque pub singalongs. The plodding 'Look Out Sunshine!' seems to demand that we put our arms around our mates, drunkenly sway from side to side, and shout out the lyrics as if this is an anthem for our generation. But who'd want to sing along to this tripe?
DOUBLE DAGGER - MORE, Thrill Jockey/Island
Like the mighty Lightning Bolt, Double Dagger make very loud music mostly using nothing but vocals, drums, and a bass that you could have sworn was a guitar. They aren’t quite the category-defying renegades that Lightning Bolt are – nothing they do ever strays very far from the borders of the hardcore genre – but they’re certainly not your average punks. The noises emanating from Bruce Willen’s instrument aren’t basslines, but they don’t sound quite like real guitar riffs either. In 'Vivre Sans Temps Mort', when the riff finally comes in – after two minutes of shockingly gentle accordion, strumming and cymbals – it’s just a single chord played regularly on every one and half beats. In other words, the bass is in a different time signature to the drums. They pull off this trick again in 'Surrealist Composition With Your Face', then on 'We Are The Ones' they play a feedback-drenched waltz based around a loop of a fretless bass sliding up an octave, and elsewhere they’re about as syncopated as punk can be without becoming punk-funk.
Double Dagger’s experimental side is easy to overlook because they’re never difficult or alienating. In fact, there’s something beautiful about this album. Instead of making it ultra-raw, recording in an abandoned building has imbued their noise with a warm fuzzy glow. Their songs are uplifting and poignant, so the fact that the drummer Denny Bowen plays in Dan Deacon’s touring ensemble makes perfect sense. Nolen Strals’s lyrics reminisce about standard punk situations – growing up full of angst in a shit town full of conservative morons etc etc – from the perspective of a punk who has grown up and can’t help getting a little misty-eyed, no matter how wary he is of the mystifying power of nostalgia. 'Vivre Sans Temps Mort' describes a boyhood spent obsessing over death, and 'The Lie/The Truth' is about how life isn’t as black and white as it once seemed. Often black and white is what you want from hardcore, but Double Dagger make a good case for the greys in between.
THE VERONICAS and METRO STATION at the PALAIS
The first thing I hear is the screams. I enter the Palais and feel like I've arrived at a school fete or a huge tenth birthday party. I'm surrounded by hundreds of excited little girls and mums. The queues for the two merchandise stalls are out the door. Inside the theatre, the clowns have begun their hilarious performance. Metro Station's two singers are a perfect comedy duo: a short stocky guy and a tall skinny guy. The latter is Trace Cyrus, Myley's brother and Billy Ray's son, and he looks like a Muppet Dave Grohl. As if he's not tall and skinny enough, Trace seems to be constantly trying to stretch his face and body out to cartoonish extremes. His eyeballs pop out of his head, his teeth are like a horse's, and he reaches for the heavens, towering over his tiny audience. He leaps off the kick-drum, swings his guitar around his body, and throws it offstage while a roadie sprints over to chuck him a replacement. Trace refers to the audience as "ladies" and uses the word "sexy" a lot. It's a bit creepy, but the age difference between band and audience actually isn't that huge. It's Trace's twentieth birthday, so a cake is brought out and he blows out the candle.
The Veronicas show is quite a spectacle. Everything on stage is perfectly symmetrical: the twin kick-drums, the dancers, the band, the twin disco balls, and of course the twins themselves. But compared to Chase and co's spontaneous exuberance, the tight choreography seems a little sterile. The problem with the music is the opposite - not artificial enough! Trying to prove that they're real musicians, the Veronicas have some of their perfectly produced pop songs smothered with noisy guitar. Weirdly, it hurts my ears more than any gig I've been to in recent times. But I guess it could be the screams. The sparse riffs in their cover of Tracey Bonham's 'Mother Mother' are a breath of fresh air after all that noise, and the acoustic section of the show is welcome too. But it's a bit too Australian Idol for my liking, and the unplugged version of 'This Love' isn't a patch on the original. Thank god those awesome strings in 'Untouched' are left intact - the string quartet is obviously miming. If only the rest of the band had done the same!
TORO Y MOI - CAUSERS OF THIS, Mistletone/Inertia
We’ve still got a couple of weeks of summer to go, and here’s another album for happy hipsters dropping acid at the beach. If your idea of a sunny good time is listening to Sunn O))) in a dark room in the middle of winter, this album isn’t for you. But for those more inclined to fun in the sun, the debut album by South Carolina’s Chazwick Bundick may just send tingles down your sunburnt spine.
If you’ve heard the glo-fi/chillwave/hypnagogic sounds of Neon Indian, Memory Tapes, Washed Out, Ducktails et al, you may not find anything new here. Actually, you’d have to have been living under a rock not to hear something familiar on this album, with its Panda Bear/Atlas Sound vocals and Daft Punk electronics. But complaining about this is like saying that today’s perfect weather is too similar to yesterday’s: this is gorgeous, swoon-inducing stuff. You can’t fault Bundick as a mimic: on 'Causes of This' and 'Eden' he plays awesome funk grooves complete with 'California Love'-style voicebox, and on 'Freak Love' he constructs a wonky beat worthy of Flying Lotus. He can melt your heart like an indie singer-songwriter, and rock a laptop like Fennesz. He doesn’t score high for originality, but familiarity is integral to this kind of music – its effect relies on the haunting power of memory, on its ability to uncannily remind us of something else.
Like Ariel Pink and his glo-fi successors, Bundick is a man of his age, absorbing the thousands of songs on his ipod, chewing them up and then spewing them out in a trail of glorious brightly-coloured mush, all filtered, chopped, echoed and mashed to fuck. He may have little musical personality of his own, but the hazy, woozy mess that results from his source materials is a beautiful thing, and a mess not quite like any other. Perhaps that mess is his personality.
THE TOUGH ALLIANCE - A NEW CHANCE, Sincerely Yours/Modular
On their 2005 album The New School, Swedish indie-dance duo the Tough Alliance sounded like loved-up soccer hooligans singing anthems for a hedonistic utopia. A year later they did a KLF and morphed into an ambient act, charting a mystic voyage through tranquil tropical waters with the Escaping Your Ambitions LP. Their latest masterpiece A New Chance fills in the missing link: here they sound like juvenile delinquents experiencing an ecstatic epiphany while on holiday in Ibiza.
TTA are still brats – the kind who think they'll live forever – but brats whose dedicated pursuit of pleasure has somehow led them to stumble upon the key to enlightenment. On stomping anthem 'First Class Riot', the singer describes their incredibly vague mystical vision ("something bright and pure, something that you've never felt before, something you can't touch, something you can't see") and sticks his middle finger up at the squares who don't get it. But I prefer it when he drops his defences and surrenders to his emotions: 'Something Special' still contains traces of snotty defiance, but that elusive something – something divine, or the memory of some lost magical moment, or perhaps just something surging through his bloodstream – gives him a dreamy, dewy-eyed tone, making him sigh and swoon.
Whatever that something is, TTA's glorious music has me convinced that it's for real. This is indie-dance that is refreshingly devoid of robotic monotony and jaded irony, never noisy, hard, dark or heavy. Instead their brash boldness shines in the irresistible bounciness of their nimble poly-rhythms, the warm spacious radiance of their atmospherics, and above all, in the utter shamelessness of their soaring melodies and uplifting piano vamps. It's a sound that evokes panoramic visions of paradise, not snapshots of a dingy club. Haters will call this album corny, but I find its emotional tone to be its great strength: touching, never twee, melancholy, never mawkish, it's a perfectly balanced mix of sheer pleasure, profound bliss and a dash of nostalgia, a rare cocktail that maybe only the Avalanches can match.
N.A.S.A - THE SPIRIT OF APOLLO
This is an album with a mission. The intro declares that its goal is to break the boundaries "set by society" (damn that society!) in order to show that "we are all one race", through the incredibly radical and unprecedented method of assembling lots of different artists from lots of different places, all on the one album! Woah dude. The absurd guest list includes David Byrne, Tom Waits, George Clinton, MIA, Kanye West, John Frusciante, Kool Keith, Sizzla, Santogold, Spank Rock, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, QBert, E40, Lykke Li, almost half of Wu-Tang, and members of Jurassic 5, the Pharcyde, Public Enemy, Blackalicious, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
The African thumb piano in the intro seems to promise a post-MIA celebration of cultural diversity, but actually this album isn't as interesting as that. N.A.S.A stands for North America/South America, and consists of LA's Squeak E. Clean and Sao Paolo's DJ Zegon, but apart from the intro, the entire non-USA contribution to the album's production style consists of one vaguely baile funk-ish track completely ruined by electric guitar and sludgy bass, one dancehall beat, and some bongos. The rest of it is just standard hip-hop. Where's the token kuduru track? Where's the reggaeton? The soca?
N.A.S.A are very good hip-hop producers, but only in the sense that if this album was an assignment they'd get full marks. Squeak E. Clean's background is in scoring commercials, so he churns out well-produced beats that do the job. As for the performers, some are good, some aren't, (RZA gets an A+, David Byrne fails, he's excruciating!) but what's the point of them all getting together when you can just put your ipod on shuffle? The rappers mostly just do what they usually do - boasting, bigging each other up, playing with puns and similes - but without the naughty subject matter that usually makes them exciting. The album's concept is rarely addressed. A good hip-hop album should paint a picture of a colourful character or environment. Instead of Compton or Staten Island, N.A.S.A try to paint two whole continents. They seem like pretty dull places to me.
VARIOUS - TAKE ME ON THE WILDEST SPREE [EXCURSIONS IN NUGAZE], Rubber Records/EMI
It's hard not to be cynical about nugaze, and not just because of its silly name. Shoegaze seems like an absurdly easy genre to revive: just take one flimsy indie song, smother in noise, and hey presto! Instant nugaze. But recently, great bands like School of Seven Bells and Belong have been breathing new life into the old sound, proving that it's more than just the latest retro fad. So I had high hopes for Take Me On The Wildest Spree, and initially it failed to meet my expectations. There is nothing "nu" about the 16 new bands featured here. Offering and Ceremony sound exactly like the Jesus & Mary Chain, Malory are dead ringers for Slowdive, The Invisible Kid are a shoegazing Stereolab, and Mist & Sea and Shade sound like forgotten '90s Triple J bands that you never need to hear again.
But if you let go of your silly old craving for originality, then you'll find much to enjoy here. Shoegaze is, after all, a timeless sound. Not because it transcends the cycles of fashion, but because its psychedelic immersion transcends time and space. Some of the best tracks here are the most generic, like those by Air Formation, Highspire, and the winner for the most hilariously generic name, Echodrone. No, not generic, but faithful keepers of the eternal shoegaze flame. These bands have zero personality, but that's because they're in touch with something much bigger than themselves. This compilation is a vast cloud of sublime sound to lose yourself in, and the weak bits are those that stand out, like the awkward IDM beats in Elika's You're Not Safe At All, and most of the moments when the lyrics can actually be heard. There's one exception though: 'Springtime' by the Danish band Rumskib is muddy as muck, but its effervescent beat and buoyant chorus leap out of the murk. Anthemic and upbeat, yet tinged with sadness, it's the kind of sugary pop genius that only Scandinavians can pull off.
THE FIERY FURNACES - I’M GOING AWAY, Popfrenzy/Inertia
Given their notoriety for difficult concept albums, far-out sounds and labyrinthine song structures, calling the Fiery Furnaces’ eighth album their most “accessible” or “conventional” isn’t saying much, but I’m Going Away is shockingly close to the middle of the road. We’re talking Gold 104 territory here: catchy, jazz-inflected piano-driven ditties that sound like Elton John and Van Morrison, and two songs about a girl who knows “the squarest thing on the jukebox”.
It’s wonderfully listenable stuff, but there’s something that makes it fascinating too. Could it be those brief moments of wacked out noise occasionally slipping through the cracks, suggesting that there’s something lurking beneath the surface? Not exactly. In fact the album’s one short moment of electronic weirdness, on 'Cups and Punches', seems superfluous. The Fiery Furnaces don’t need to be experimental to prove that they’re eccentric.
They triumph over this straight style not by subversion, but by conquering it. Eleanor Friedberger is a master of that jazzy singing style that crams dizzying torrents of syncopated syllables into just a few bars, like scatting without the gibberish. (Think of the verses in Steely Dan’s 'Reelin’ in the Years'.) In 'Drive to Dallas', she uses this technique to add detail and colour to the theme established by the song’s simple, tuneful hook, “If I see you tomorrow, I don’t know what I will do.” Her mind racing, she spews out the convoluted back-story to her predicament over a slow melancholy groove, quickly repeating wordy phrases over and over as if she can’t get them out of her head. When the music suddenly quadruples in tempo for an interlude of Minutemen-style jazzy hardcore, it fits perfectly with Eleanor’s neurotic mood.
The simple tunes and lyrics draw us in emotionally, but listen a little closer and those jazzy flourishes start to sound like nervous tics. When the drummer speeds up, it’s like a quickening pulse; when there’s a guitar solo, it’s like a nervous breakdown. I’m Going Away has ‘70s soft rock’s combination of catchy hooks and astounding musicianship, without the laidback slickness. This ain’t no yacht rock record.
NITIN SAWHNEY - LONDON UNDERSOUND, POSITIVE-ID/Cooking Vinyl
Indian-British producer/composer Nitin Sawhney takes himself pretty seriously, fusing east and west in order to address important issues. His eighth album London Undersound is supposed to be about the way that London has changed since the terrorist attacks in 2005. It opens with 'Days of Fire', in which Natty delivers a mellow half spoken, half sung description of the bombings over a soothing acoustic guitar. If you didn't pay attention to the lyrics (which would be difficult, given the unsubtle way that the message is shoved in your face) you'd think that Natty was fondly reminiscing about the wonderful times he and his childhood friends had sitting around a campfire.
The album's clumsy title refers to the London Underground bombings. Sawhney must have replaced the G and the R with an S when he realised the irony of an "underground" album featuring Paul McCartney complaining about the paparazzi. The fact that it features an old Beatle gives you a good idea of what this album is like: nice, but middlebrow, middle aged, middle of the road. Just because it's multicultural doesn't mean it's not musically conservative. And that would be fine if it wasn't trying to be something else. In the pretentious liner notes Sawhney states that "this music attempts to capture a zeitgeist and common humanity that pervades superficial divides". There are plenty of corny signifiers of "common humanity" here (acoustic guitar, strings, piano etc, with some sitars and things thrown in for the sake of diversity), but what about the zeitgeist? If you took out the topical lyrics, this album could have been made any time in the last fifteen years. If you took out the polite breakbeats and dubby bits, then maybe even earlier. Perhaps any nods to recent London underground music would have alienated Sawhney's audience, sounding inhuman, and setting up "superficial divides". Sawhney's "undersound" excludes as least as much as it includes, and his idea of humanity is not common to all.
KAKI KING at the CORNER HOTEL
Kaki King is an OK singer, and a good songwriter, but as a guitarist she's absolutely amazing. Virtuosos are usually sneered at in the indie universe - players with chops are dismissed as mere session musicians, and shredders like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani are seen as preposterous musical masturbaters. But King's guitar is obviously no penis extension, and her pieces are never dry technical exercises, so it's impossible to deny that her playing is incredible. She opens her set with '...Until We Felt Red', a waltz that builds in achingly slow tidal waves, like the Dirty Three. King's gorgeous lap steel guitar is so elastic and buoyant that it sounds like it's made out of air. It's a vapour song, not an ocean song. The dizzying polyrhythms of 'Bone Chaos In the Castle' could hardly be more different. Slapping the side of her acoustic guitar, King provides the rhythm as well as the melody. The sight of her hand darting back and forth is a wondrous thing to behold.
After these two stunning instrumentals, King has the audience in the palm of her hand, so we'll gladly forgive her if the rest is less than perfect. Well actually, the third song is pretty great too: 'Life Being What It Is' is a beautiful ballad that showcases King's fragile voice. The only problem is that here she sounds little different from hundreds of other precious folky-indie-acoustic singer-songwriters, whereas her guitar experiments are one of a kind. After this, she changes direction yet again, picking up an electric guitar and playing some mediocre indie-rock from her new Mexican Teenagers EP. Fortunately her two bandmates are excellent. Dan Brantigan plays an analog EVI - a MIDI trumpet that sometimes sounds like a violin, sometimes like a flute, and sometimes like one of Herbie Hancock's synths. His stratospheric solos start to steal the limelight, pedals are switched on, and the set starts to move into post-rock territory. Which is lovely and all, but it starts sending me to sleep. I wake up for one of her best pieces, 'Gay Sons of Lesbian Mothers', in which she coaxes all kinds of psychedelic sounds out of her lap steel, over a great dub techno bassline. Now if King could just focus on wonderful stuff like this and stop showing off her range, who knows how great she could be.
FRIEDMAN & LIEBEZEIT - SECRET RHYTHMS 3, Nonplace/Groove Attack
In the sixties and seventies, drummer extraordinaire Jaki Liebezeit played a crucial role in the cosmic adventures of krautrock band Can. With his dazzlingly inventive combination of hypnotic motorik and fluid funk, he was a precursor to the rhythm programmers of contemporary electronica, so it should come as no surprise that he's been working with a cutting edge producer like Burnt Friedman. Liebezeit is now seventy, but he's lost none of his funky precision, and his rhythms are more adventurous than ever. According to their myspace, F & R's rhythms are "secret" in the sense that they are "foreign to western culture". One might add that the obscure logic of these rhythms is often a mystifying secret, posing questions like "What time signature could this possibly be in?" and "Where the hell is the start of the bar?"
The fusion experiments on the first Secret Rhythms album took place in the microscopic world of glitch and minimal, its tiny jazz-dub sounds scurrying out of some secret underground burrough. Since then the duo's sound has expanded, now filling vast canyons on secret far-off planets. In some ways it feels like a return to Liebezeit's seventies prog roots: If it weren't for those crazy beats, opener 'Morning Has Broken''s stadium guitars and spacey sound effects might have you thinking you'd accidentally put on a Pink Floyd record, and 'Gegenwart' recalls the fourth world groovescapes of Can's Soon Over Babaluma. Things get more subtle and jazzy in the second half of the album, with Hayden Chisholm's breathy sax and Friedman's vibes bringing it closer to the lonely late-night feel of SR1. But despite these echoes of the past, Secret Rhythms 3 is startlingly original, and thoroughly in tune with the zeitgeist. Not bad for an old geezer!
HARMONIA at the EAST BRUNSWICK CLUB
Harmonia was perhaps the most exciting of all the legendary names on the All Tomorrow's Parties lineup. We are, after all, talking about a group that includes Michael Rother, a former member of two of the greatest bands of all time, Neu! and Kraftwerk. Harmonia may not be quite in the same league as those acts, but seeing them is hardly just settling for the next best thing. The German trio were such crucial pioneers of the ambient genre that Brian Eno called them "the world's most important rock band" and then joined them on their third album.
On that beautiful sunny afternoon up on Mt Buller, their set was almost a religious experience, so I jumped at the chance to see them again. After coming down the mountain my health and serotonin are feeling somewhat drained, so it isn't quite the same at the dark and packed East Brunswick Club. No longer having to cater to a festival crowd, Harmonia indulge themselves with some darker, more abstract material. I marvel at the rising and falling waves of eerie electronic sound, but the philistine in me can't help wondering when the beat's going to kick in. The long wait makes the payoff all the more satisfying: that hypnotic motorik gradually rises to the surface, and the crowd goes nuts as Rother takes his eyes off his laptop, picks up his guitar, and goes for his big rock star moment. He's too busy painting heavenly soundscapes to bother with any kind of stage presence, let alone guitar hero moves, but Rother is clearly the star of the show. While Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius look every bit the mad scientists that their names suggest, Rother is quite handsome. But that's beside the point - this is head music, and it's his soaring guitar tones that enthrall us.
The most ecstatic moment of all is Harmonia's only real "big tune", the majestic 'Deluxe (Immer Wieder)'. In fact, this is the only tune I can identify, as most of the set is made up of unreleased material. It sounds shiny and new, and at least as fresh as the modern techno that Harmonia paved the way for. A stranger in the crowd asks me, "Can I suggest an adjective for your review? Joyful, or joyous!" Indeed!