Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Album Reviews

Isolated in Spain to hammer her new songs into shape, Nancy Elizabeth chanced upon an old piano in an abandoned schoolhouse, and that instrument forms the backbone of many of the songs on her second album. There are also guitar based songs, but these are more spartan than before, and some are so personal that it'd be embarrassing to ask about the lyrics. One of the most striking live is "Feet of Courage" with little more than a chair and hand shaker as percussion to back the sweet hopeful vocal. Future folk or timeless songwriting? Doesn't matter as long as she keeps making albums this fine.

Despite throwing a curveball with the opener "Trad" which sounds like seventies classic rock in a blender, Part Chimp still guarantee a rampaging onslaught akin to a lumbering behemoth levelling every skyscraper in its path. Maybe the chaos has been reigned in a little but this is still rock heavy enough to destabilize orbital axes of smaller heavenly bodies. If you like heaviness minus those wailing metal singers that tend to spoil it all, Part Chimp are just the ticket. Michael Jackson's ghost is rumoured to be in litigation.

Mark Lanegan croons like he's lived seven lives of hopeless heartbreak and smoked himself to oblivion each time. Soulsavers soundtrack a widescreen diamond desert roadtrip, the perfect path for him to escape ringing death bells. Yet more remarkable, Australian singer Rosa Agostino almost upstages Lanegan towards the end of the trip, after bombarding Soulsavers lynchpin Rich Machin with demos. Gibby Haynes, Jason Pierce, Richard Hawley, Mike Patton are less noticable audible visitors. Will Oldham leaves a heavier footprint with a desperate lyric, delivered with suitable intensity by Lanegan. Could this turn out to be the best album of the latter half of the year? BH

Samson and Delilah are a duo familiar to me as part of the larger Last Harbour ensemble. Set free, they play timeless folk influenced by John Martyn, Sigur Ros and Leonard Cohen. Sometimes, as on opening song "Crystallised Sand," there's a hypnotic atmosphere courtesy of subtle drones, and they're even bold enough to sing unaccompanied. Guitars, bells and woodwind were recorded in the church where this Australian / Somerset born couple were wed, which doubtless adds to the devotional air. "Dreams of Yesterday" is the most hopeful song I've heard in a long while. Now expanded to a quintet with flute, double bass and drums, they'll be touring England through the latter half of October.

I first entered the Palace of Sin on my birthday when they supported Magazine in Sheffield. It's easy to see why Magazine bassist Barry Adamson released their album on his label. He used to be one of Nick Cave's Bad Seeds and the Gilded Palace is drenched in a similar southern gothic downpour of burden. This is an eclectic yet cohesive set, swinging from the moody opener setting a scene of escape, to the tale of a free moving immigrant "Rosa Salvaje," to the highlight of their live set, the lumbering story of a wife murdering psycho "Mean Old Jack," that recalls The Fall. Best of all is the menacing "There is No Evil, There is No Good," a song that builds a momentum suggestive of impending disaster, yet seems liberated by it.

At sundown drunken clowns hijacked a merry-go-round in the possibly misguided belief that it could be converted into an interstellar rocket ship. Earlier that day an old German geezer made another record that every trendy bod who digs Kraftwerk really should check out. Former Cluster classics echo through this motorik pulsebeat, yet it sounds timeless in its technoid deviance. A master of rhythm and melody, Moebius creates an atmosphere of jovial oddity that is at once familiar yet alien.

One man with the chord organ blues, who sings of heartbreak and hope, lovelorn losers and friendly ghosts, Daniel Johnston is a rare performer who deserves to be described as genius. Quite simply he is the only songwriter I've ever heard who can make me laugh and cry in the space of one verse of the same song. He's also written the third funniest song about masturbation ever to spurt into these ears. If you've never checked out his music this is a good starting place, and if you want more of his lo-fi light you'll want to know that three early albums have also been remastered and reissued on two more CDs in nice digipacks with posters and sleevenotes. BH

This North Italian collective know experimentation doesn't preclude melody. Whilst Coil and This Heat are influences, their gabbling jams sound more like seventies Faust. Upbeat harmonica hoedown sits snugly alongside pastoral acoustic passages. Gurgling out of Padova with enough atmosphere for a new world free from politicians and bankers, they don't quite send the weirdometer off the scale, but come closer than anything else I've reviewed here! BH

Did you spill their pints? This is the kind of grunge that Sub Pop was initially famed for unleashing upon the world. Unlikely they'll upstage the likes of Mudhoney and Nirvana, but these Australians unleash an unholy racket that probably makes a lot more sense in a stinking sweatpit with all the amps past eleven. This sounds way more grimy than the music they call grime these days. Dopey neighbours hate it, they want gay disco!

This female trio from Tokyo have conveniently titled three of their essential motorik jams 'Pop Group,' 'This Heat' and 'Sonic Youth.' Add Neu, Boredoms and touch of no wave noise attitude and you have a good set of reference points. They scream a little but mostly kick and clatter, jagged and relentlessly propulsive. When they played Trof in late July I was astonished at the original way they attacked their instruments. This is probably the best new band I've heard in 2008.

It's always a treat to hear musicians you've never heard before and be blown away by their majestic originality. Yaneka are a brother and sister from Japan. Koji plays acoustic guitar and sets up rhythmic delay loops by tapping its wooden body. Yoko dresses to kill Nipponese style, dances beautifully and sings beguiling melodies. This is emotive music unlike anything else I've ever heard, but maybe I am just ignorant of its roots?

You're always guaranteed sun-scorched wonder from Calexico. The politicised 'Garden Ruin' might've been their best album, so it's a surprise that they've stripped down to the core duo here, bringing in collaborators one at a time as required. I wouldn't have guessed without reading the press release, but this is a dreamlike impression of a writer on a roadtrip east from LA who eventually ends up in Russia via abandoned New Orleans streets and a toxic lake of mobile phones. But is the dust he carries radioactive?

Howe Gelb has brewed up more albums than I can count on my fingers, but this is the first time in four years he's returned to the yippity happenstance of Giant Sand. No gospel choir this time 'round, but he's found three able Danish musicians who know the twang's the thang. Good buddies Neko Case, Isobell Campbell and M. Ward drop by to join in the Arizona hoedown, salute the can do girl and pay homage to PJ Harvey's 'Desperate Kingdom of Love' at the end of this burning world.

The great thing about getting sent free CDs to review is the rare occasion when something I never heard before sounds truly awesome. San Francisco based Emily Jane does nothing radical or original, but with little else other than guitar or piano to back her husky croon she pulls off the singer songwriter trick so well that comparisons to Catpower, however accurate, seem almost a slight. This jazzy folk melancholia lady is going to be huge or I'm a fascist agent of the CIA who kills cats in Satanic rituals.

Thurston Moore can always be relied on to release tons of improv jams between Sonic Youth albums. Some are much more worthwhile than others and this is one of the best I've heard. It's good to have a full on free noise-jazz-spazz onslaught to recommend highly after all the nice singer songwriter types. Saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, who assembled the six strong ensemble, reckons free jazz and pre-punk are all the same. QED this kick ass shit is way punker than weak retro shite like the Libertines and all their crummy spawn.

"Snowflake in a hot world, you're changing," sings Jonathan Donahue as an opening and it could well be a metaphorical manifesto for Mercury Rev. They had to move on and challenge themselves by working with unfamiliar instruments and arrangements. Whilst still recognisably the Rev, it’s mostly Jonathan's voice that provides familiarity as their music has shifted into much more experimental territory without sacrificing dreamy melody, picking up the chaotic challenge of the flap of a butterfly's wing. It might not be their best album, but it does seem like their most otherworldly.

Down under the drones there is much beauty to be heard. New Zealand soundscaper Rosy parlane conjures three exquisitely structured meditations. Guitar based but taking in everything from the sounds of household objects to a miked up Samurai sword, 'Jessamine' eventually rallies a gang of guitarists to clang to a transcendent crescendo. Parlane's everything is an instrument mentality has birthed a supernova of universal harmony that ups the ante for experimental music from the Antipodes to way beyond Uranus.

Kristin Hersh doesn't so much write songs as act as their medium. Songs don't care about time. Kristin might've played everything except drums and strings, but this has a colourful band sound. This is as fine as ever, these songs demanded sumptuous treatment. Meticulous attention to trying out studio effects has made this Kristin's most psychedelic album, as warm as a Winter fire. Little green apples falling on lizards in the ozone snow - this place makes me feel like I'm dead haunting it.

Arbouretum's songwriter Dave Heumann has played in bands with Will Oldham and David Pajo, and his own music finds similar hope rising out of melancholy. Heavily influenced by the writer Paul Bowles, Arbouretum gallops along dark Americana canyons of sheer emotional impact. Arbouretum is not averse to chasing a guitar solo all the way to the kill, skinning it and hanging its head upside down as a trophy. BH

Chris Corsano is one of the most impressive and original improvising drummers around. In Death Unit he gangs up with Trevor Tremaine for a double drum onslaught that clatters and smashes a tunnel through Carlos Giffoni's harsh electronics and Mouthus' Brian Sullivan's destroyer guitar. Their intention is to leave nothing alive behind. If you're looking for an extreme freenoise assault, then this is a graveyard you should be haunting.

How do you get two Tortoises to play with electric eels?Cornet player Rob Mazurek assembled an ensemble of Chicago improvisers to soundtrack the adventures of a shapeshifting sting ray. Despite assertions that this has nothing to do with genre, jaunty big band jazz, Eric Satie, Tortoise and Sun Ra are obvious references. Playful and cinematic, this is the most melodic Mazurek music I've heard, despite the more abstract improvisations with recordings of the pulses from electric eels.

This is what Biosphere's Geir Jenssen did on his holidays. He took a minidisc on his trek up the sixth highest mountain in the world and recorded the noises he found there. With a written diary and photo booklet this conjures up the atmosphere of a Himalayan peak for those who don't want to freeze their ass off. Birds feasting on crumbs, Indian airline pilots, traditional music on the radio, the calls of Tibetan Yak drivers and summit breeze combine to tell the story.

RTX 'WESTERN XTERMINATOR' (DRAG CITY)The addition of tough metal guitar gives RTX extra fire to kick out the jams, but Jennifer Herrema plays a surprise hand by whipping out a flute to charm rats away from the garbage collector. Sifting through the detritus of rock's past, RTX are making the dirtiest, coolest rock moves in the USA today.

THE SCIENTISTS 'SEDITION' (ALL TOMORROW'S PARTIES)Kim Salmon's legendary Australian swamp rockers reformed to play the Mudhoney curated day at All Tomorrow's Parties and this recording of a recent Mudhoney support results in their most wired performances of classics like 'Nitro' and 'Solid Gold Hell,' but its 'Backwards Man' that reverses into tomorrow with barely contained venom. This makes the White Stripes sound like Shakin' Stevens, and you can hear why Jon Spencer copped so many of their moves.

GITHEAD 'ART POP' (SWIM)These days its about control. Oblique Joy Division references are probably unintentional but you never know with a canny mover in pop futures like Wire's Colin Newman. Githead take a brighter path than Wire on their second album of breezy computer rock. Using a vocodered vocal recital of reviews for their first album must be the ultimate in post-everything lyricism. Opener 'On Your Own' is as uplifting an anthem as Newman has ever
written. "You understand nothing in your inbox today."

LOW 'DRUMS AND GUNS' (SUB POP)"Do you need a murderer?" is not the kind of question most bands would ask as a harmonised lyric. Low's ruminations on the fallout of wartorn times get inside desperate personal situations with subtlety and tearjerking poignancy. The introduction of programmed beats might turn a few heads but they serve the songs seamlessly and their tenth album is this year's most emotionally heavy album so far.

HANNE HUKKELBERG 'RYKESTRASSE 68' (NETWERK)This Norwegian songstress takes a perky experimental trip through a warped mirror on showtunes. She sings sensuously about her pet cat 'Obelix' and his tongue, and with a spin of a percussive bicycle wheel her slowed down mellow attempt to 'Break My Body' results in the only Pixies cover I've ever heard that works.

ALESSANDRO STEFANA 'POSTE E TELEGRAFI (IMPORTANT)An Italian guitarist finds the beauty in the eye of the twang. His spare soundscapes are bold yet fluid, sweet and beguiling. International collaborators include New York guitarist Marc Ribot, but Alessandro employs banjo, omnichord, organ, kalimba and a strings machine to work his gorgeous magic.

The immensely climactic opening is deceptive as this is perhaps the Texan quartet's most gorgeous album yet, recorded with acute attention to detail. Pianos ripple prettily through the chiming guitars, drums blow holes in the floor as they compose an immaculate soundtrack for being cast adrift. Don't let the drippy song titles put you off, this is music as well suited to describing dazzling sunsets over oceans as it is emotional loneliness. They're probably tired of the comparisons by now, but its still worth pointing Mogwai and godspeed fans in their direction.

This is just Nina, her guitar and the genius instinctively impressionistic drumming of Dirty Three maestro Jim White, and could well be her best album yet. 'I've Been Out Walking' has a drum pattern so brilliantly original my jaw hit the floor. 'The Day I Would Bury You' is a song of devastated emotional maturity. Jim reckons this is the best album he's ever played on. The only drawback is that there is only half an hour of this inspired collaboration. And why do no shops in Manchester stock Dirty Three albums?

If like me you thought the most recent Fall album was their worst and would like it if Smith did a whole disc full of killer drum'n'bass destruction like 'Doctor Buck's Letter' then check this out. The Suicide frontman rants and raves as if apocalypse hit yesterday and you all forgot to notice. Sounding like a deranged dirty old man, Vega is obviously angry about the state of the world. Since he's smart enough to realise that he'd be punished by family friends Al Qaeda for shooting George Bush between his 'Swaztika Eyes,' he has composed this psychopathic maelstrom of electrobash to vent his spleen instead.

What remains inside a black hole? Is there beauty in mutation? International laptop instrumentalists Christian Fennesz and Riuchi Sakamoto might not be able to shed any light on my first inquiry, but they make the latter abundantly clear. Crossing generational timelines, Sakamoto's piano nebula proves to be the perfect partner to Fennesz' shimmering guitar-shift. Beyond word and image, music is the pursuit of beauty and here it is captured and enraptured, brought to light in a new evolving incandesant universe.

Two friendly guys waving? Say, "Hi," to Eric and Lou, Sebadoh. After the high volume mindfuck of Dinosaur Jr, Lou Barlow needed to give vent to his more experimental absurdist lo-fi songwriting side. In Eric Gaffney he found a crazed shamanic collaborator to swap instruments and ideas. Their tapes spewed forth visions of little ones raised on mouldy bread, walking in the Land of the Lords with a soulmate who is "a special girl, a girl who's just like me, she'll share trmendous oral sex and try everything she sees." Expanded to 52 songs, including a cover of "Yellow Submarine" which could be the most hilariously radical reinvention of a Beatles song to exist in this plane of reality, 'The Freed Man' flows with no hint of filler. Whether the magic is black or white, there's enough rapid twist'n'shout to rock the forest bigtime.

Jessica Rylan is a strangely birdlike woman who applies chaos theory to music composition. When I saw her play she she morphed vocals into a ghostly warble via a belt mounted gadget, so it came as a surprise that this album is entirely vox free. Inspired by Pauline Oliveros, Iannis Xenakis and Thomas Lehn, Jessica has made four abstract noisescapes with Serge Modular and self-built analog synthesisers. The essay relating chaos to music on the insert is also one of the most interesting, useful and timely things I have ever read.

Part instrumental exploration of a musical landscape painted in with banjo, jew's harp, piano and guitar, part mystical infusion of cosmic Norse mythology, 'Atomic Yggdrasil Tarot' is a divining agent, spellbook and shining example of art at its most majestically transformative. Accompanied by a luscious blue bound hardback book of poetry and abstract images on which to meditate, Higgs' Tarot breathes new life into the shamanic element inherent in all great music.

If you like your hard rock kicks plug ugly brutal then this four hoarseman beat combo from down under could be just the ticket. Whilst not as swampy as the Scientists nor as wildly inventive as the Birthday Party, fans of those bands might appreciate the bluster, however this is more in the vein of Killdozer and Feedtime. Damn, they've probably got their jeans well pissed at the number of comparisons I just threw at them!

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