Reviews
RECORD REVIEW: BILL CALLAHAN - APOCALYPSE
Reviews
Saturday, 30 April 2011 06:25

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Drag City

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I continue to wonder if there's a bad record lurking somewhere in Bill Callahan's music future and after surveying the organic, earthy fruits on his fourteenth studio album, Apocalypse, I'm coming to the conclusion that the answer is probably no. Since leaving behind his partly necessary lo-fi beginnings in the mid 1990s and trading them for greener musical pastures, Callahan has not taken a misstep. Producing consistently good records is a difficult task, but Callahan seems to do it with ease. To the unfamiliar, Apocalypse will probably sound a lot like its predecessor, Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle and this is often the barb thrown at Callahan, that he's a one trick pony. It's a ridiculous notion to those of us enamoured with his work, but its a recognition that subtlety and intelligence in music and in life sadly goes almost unnoticed and therefore is largely unrewarded and unloved by the flickering subliminality that dominates mass culture today. It's a culture that seems to have little time for Callahan's penchant for time and space, his determination to spend time with his characters, develop his narrative and search for that metaphor that hits one between the eyes every time.

So it is with Apocalypse, a seven song story that traverses themes of individualism and nationalism and sees Callahan venture outside of himself more than he ever has on past outings. Apocalypse can almost be termed an album of social criticism, all the while maintaining Callahan's tendency for introspection, However, if your not tuned in, Callahan's seemingly deadpan vocals and familiar acoustic guitar dominated music will be your only markers and you will miss some brilliantly honest social commentary. That's not to say that Callahan sees himself as having all the answers. In fact, Apocalypse, as with all of his work will probably provoke more questions than it answers.

What also sets this album apart from its immediate predecessors is its live formula. Callahan stated that he was searching for a more organic, instant feel with this album so employed a largely one take policy that sees the slight faux pas and aberrations left in the final mix, witness the drum fill in 'America'. It reminds in no other way but memory of his first few eccentrically experimental outings where one takes were mandatory for other and more pressing reasons. Musically, Callahan displays his usual folk and rock leanings but with nods slightly more to the latter, especially with the use of electric guitar licks that litter certain tracks. He also employs some 70s funk on the third track, the acerbically witty 'America' which changes up the album's trajectory perfectly. That change up sits well against the rustic old style feel in the instrumentation as the song structures transports you to a simpler, yet more foreboding time typifiying Callahan's ability to ably represent time and place.

The pensiveness of youth on opener 'The Drover' is immediate as guitar strums clang and drums patter and crack like a horseman's whip. It's an instant reminder of Callahan's ultimate respect for the might of the environment and its actors and the ultimate moral and physical difficulties present  when the individual human being tries to use or tame it or them. He ruses; "Yeah one thing about this wild, wild country, It takes a strong, strong, It breaks a strong, strong mind, And anything less, anything less, Makes me feel like I'm wasting my time, But the pain and frustration, is not mine, It belongs to the cattle, through the valley". This is more than illustrated when the cattle turn on him, the music changes starkly as Callahan sings; "And when my cattle turns on me, I was knocked back flat, I was knocked out cold for one clack of the train track". But then that human defiance; "Then I rose a colossal hand buried, buried in sand, I rose like a drover, For I am in the end a drover, A drover by trade, When my cattle turns on me, I am a drover, double fold". The sense of distance and apartness from everyday life is imaged when speaking of the lonely occupation of driving cattle; "I consoled myself with rudimentary thoughts, And I set my watch against the city clock, It was way off". Its an ode to the restlessness of youth, as the young drover struggles to forge a clear direction in his life in the same way he struggles with his cattle.

'Baby's Breath', sees a young man stumble upon uncomfortable domesticity, the delicate guitars and the loose timing acting as musical metaphors for the trials and tribulations associated with social and cultural institutions (marriage) and norms (fatherhood), personal expectations that surround them and the tenuous relationship that many men have always instinctively had with such restriction and conformity and being forced to 'grow up'. "My girl and I rushed atop the altar, The sacrifice was made, It was not easy undertaking, The roots gripped soft like a living grave". Like many, our father puts his head down and builds physical structures to make up for his emotional shortcomings; "Good plans are made by hand, I'd cut a clearing in the land, And for a little bed, For her to cry comfortable in".

That loss of innocence takes on a wider perspective and a dramatic turn with 'America', Callahan's most politically charged track he's ever penned.  Amidst funked up guitars and beats, he acerbically and wryly describes his country's past and present and almost laments how much control in cultural terms this hypocritical nation has and has had on the world; "America! America!, I watch David Letterman in Australia, Oh America!, You are so grand and gold, golden, I wish I was on the next flight to America". He reminds us of and berates America's hypocritical diplomatic and war record at home and abroad, "Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iran, Native American" and after dressing his music heroes Kristofferson, Newbury, Leatherneck Jones and Cash in metaphorical battles fatigues subtlely boasts "I never served my country". There's also a dig at the construction of collective and selective memories that are at the core of myth-making that underpins nation building; "Well everyone's allowed a past they don't care to mention". There's a nod to the sad state of affairs in today's domestic American politics with the media dominance by the conservative hard Right, the tin pot, half-arsed ideas of the nutty Tea Party and the ever-growing political influence of the country's vocal religious extremists. And if there was any doubt that Callahan is far from happy at the growing divide between rich and poor, we're left in no doubt by the final lyrical offering that comes on the back of some rollicking lead guitar; "All the lucky suckle teat, Others chaw pig knuckle meat, Ain't enough teat, ain't enough teat, ain't enough teat, Ain't enough teat, ain't enough teat, ain't enough to eat, In America, America! America!, In America".

The album's centrepiece, 'Universal Applicant' takes things down a notch musically with its rootsy rhythm and sparse wooded instrumentation. But lyrically, things have taken a turn for the worst for our protagonist. Out alone and adrift and in trouble in a boat having freed himself from those aforementioned social straight jackets, he shoots himself in the foot literally when the flare he fires to draw attention to his plight falls squarely back on him and destroys his craft. As he slowly sinks, wittily Callahan rhymes the myriad of contradictory things his character has been; a punk, lunk, drunk, skunk, hunk and a monk who is now literally, sunk.

The exquisite 'Riding For The Feeling' has Callahan ruminating on an appropriate way of saying goodbye for his now touring entertainer. Laden with beautifully constructed slide guitar that sits atop a familiar strumming waltz like rhythm, the never-ending search for the right explanations for the past actions of a life is a process that's worth is questioned; "With the TV on mute, I'm listening back to the tapes, On the hotel bed, My my my apocalypse, I realized I had said very little about ways or wheels"...(but) "What if I had stood there at the end, And said again and again and again and again and again, An answer to every question, Riding For The Feeling, would that have been a suitable goodbye". Our protagonist has clearly been trading on instinct. 'Free's' an oddly named but discernible title is matched appropriately with spritely pastoral sounds but lyrically Callahan is again questioning the meaning of freedom; is it just a path to endless questions? "I'm standing in a field, A field of questions, As far as the eye can see, Is this what it means to be free?". Is there such a thing of true freedom; "Or is this what it means to belong to the free?"

The album's lengthy closer rings like an slow burning epic and has Callahan bringing together all his protagonists; drover, father, social critic, castaway, entertainer, philosopher for a final farewell. A carefully constructed catharsisis, 'One Fine Morning', starts off in spartan shape musically with guitar for rhythm and piano for embellishment which fits perfectly with the opening lines; "Just me and the skeleton crew, We're gonna ride out in a country kind of silence, We're gonna ride out in a country silence, Yeah one fine morning". Utilising a horse and a road as metaphors for crossing over into another dimension after death, questions are still unanswered but he realises that's what he is and what he's done will affect future generations, however insignificantly, he will be that horse, he will be that road. Spot the quoting to the album's catalogue number ascribed to a metaphorical plane model "DC 4 5 0", the last words on the album, which could almost be a reference that 'Apocalypse' has been gifted by Callahan, giving a piece of himself.

Bill Callahan's ability to intelligently articulate and narrate his way through complex themes utilising everything from metaphors that illustrate stark reality to punchlines that smack of wryness and black humour firmly entrenches and ensconces Callahan in the pantheon of best songwriters of the modern era. That the music he employs alongside his lyrical work can be labelled poetry in and of itself is further evidence of just how good an artist he is. Callahan is just as important as the legends he namechecks on this album. He's just as good as Dylan, if not better, but lives in an era where intelligence goes under the radar, is undervalued, even distrusted and an artist of his ilk will never be heard by the masses that have heard Dylan down the years. But that is of no matter here. 'Apocalypse' may just be Callahan's best album, quite a statement given the quality of his discography over the last two decades and some. It's further illustration and a satisfying reminder of how important this modest 44 year old artist is, a testament to his stunning consistency and longevity.

James Stocker - April 30, 2010.

 

America!

Bill Callahan (USA)
From the album, 'Apocalypse', Drag City.

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Audio Only

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RECORD REVIEW: JENIFEREVER - SILESIA
Reviews
Sunday, 24 April 2011 00:38

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Monotreme

Buy they've done. 'A Drink To Remember' is a poigant affair with its carefully layered build up and emotional crescendo. Jönson sings about the importance yet ultimate futility of words in expressing the fullness grief and loss ..'glasses touch and drift away...so much and so little to say, memories begin to fade...drink to remember what's left behind'.

'Deception Pass' begins the second half of the album with a huge bang. Heavy reverb on crashing guitars and a constant back and forth drum fill give way to a pop inspired chorus. A powerful rock jam ensues before the band disciplines itself by settling for a quiet and chastened end. 'Cathedral Peak' continues Silesia's consistent trajectory while lyrically sparking hope in despair using the seasons as a metaphor for renewal. The classical instrumentation embellishes that feeling of hope breaking through. The slow and intense guitar melodies present on 'Where The Hills Fall Toward The Ocean' give the track an affecting feel that rises and falls perfectly. 'Dover' is an expertly crafted piece of catchy songwriting with a clever twist in its middle where it changes direction entirely in rhythm and intensity making it an album standout. Final track 'Hearths' rounds out the album nicely and is an example of the band opting to utilise space in their sound.

Purists may probably accuse Jeniferever in its search for immediacy of forgoing its post rock roots (if that's indeed from where they emanate) but those that do miss the point of what drives the foursome. In any case, others have criticised the band for not changing enough. On the evidence here, both criticisms are invalid and leave them in the absurd position of being damned if they do, damned if they don't. That's unfortunate because there is a real honesty to this band who clearly relish what they do with gusto. There is nothing pedestrian about Jeniferever, no simply going through the motions. The organic way the band utilises the environment to create its lyrical content and musical soundscapes is impressive and sets them apart from many. While length is something that may have allowed for some criticism of Jeniferever in the past, Silesia never outstays its welcome indicating that even after 15 years, the band is still growing in direction, formulating and streamlining their sound. It's a growth that'll be a pleasure to watch in the talented Swedes in the years to come.

James Stocker - April 24, 2011.

 

The Beat Of Our Own Blood

Jeniferever (SWE)
From the album, 'Silesia', Monotreme.

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RECORD REVIEW : PANDA BEAR - TOMBOY
Reviews
Saturday, 16 April 2011 05:32

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Paw Tracks

Buy seconds is at once relentless and fantastic. 'Slow Motion' seems to bob along like a life buoy and highlights Lennox's vocals which are strong and confident with the keyboards and reverb creating a rich texture. 'Surfer's Hymn' opens fittingly with sounds of the ocean, before a schizophrenic xylophone kicks in, but again his voice is front and central. "When there are hard times I'll step up" he sings keeping with a theme of introspection found throughout Tomboy.

'Drone' is heavy on the synths, and again heavy on the reverb, perfectly positioned at the mid-point of the tracklist. It's a more ambient venture with a minute long outro that works perfectly, and serves of an example of the tight production and effort that clearly went into this album. The amazingly meditative quality of 'Scheherezade' is something to behold, its minor scales float along and Lennox's voice itself becoming another instrument cascading in a beautiful and glorious waterfall amongst the sustain and resonance. The diamond precision and attention to detail found here is breathtaking.

Tomboy was recorded in Lisbon, Portugal, with renowned producer Peter Kember (aka Sonic Boom) of Spacemen 3/Spectrum mixing and arranging. The album has been released by Paw tracks in the usual formats as well as a special hi-fidelity version on DMM vinyl and a box set of 12" singles. Lennox moved the release date forward a week so it would be available for Record Store Day, where, as I write this, I'm sure it's selling like the proverbial hotcake. Tomboy demands repeat listens, the tight production and layers of texture constantly offering something new; the time spent getting this thing right is evident. The wait is over and the payoff is excellent.

Dave Roberts - April 16, 2011.

Slow Motion

Panda Bear (USA)
From the album, 'Tomboy', Paw Tracks

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RECORD REVIEW: DIRTY BEACHES - BADLANDS
Reviews
Saturday, 09 April 2011 00:51

Zoo Music

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There hasn't been a more polarising album release this year than the debut, Badlands by Dirty Beaches. Full of tortured loops steeped in 50s rockabilly and early 60s pop with a sound that is... well dirty, to say the least has left some praising its protagonist Alex Zhang Hungtai for his originality of approach and the music's hypnotic qualities while others denigrate it as inauthentic and lazy. It all depends on what you want from your music. If you're looking for some pure escapism and album's built on thematic structures, then Dirty Beaches is your bag, even if some might find that escape a descent into a sonic hell. Badlands though has a cerebral quality to it no matter what your position as Hungtai channels the ultimate 1950's or early 60's road trip, picking up radio frequencies that assimilate pop and rock. The vehicle, a rumbling old clunker the like to be found in spades on the streets of Havana is in for a torrid time.  

Each of the eight tracks employs a loop that takes a riff or melody and mines it for all its worth. If your looking for multiple changes in direction within one song you won't find it here. There's no better example of this than the 'in your face' opener 'Speedway King' as the industrial sounding two chord loop repeats over and over mesmerising the listener into submission. Hungtai embellishes the loop with off kilter guitar clangs that are so way off the mark they actually work. This style has had one acid tongued critic doubting that he can even play the thing. 'Horses' is the first of two forays into the channelling of Alan Vega and Elvis Presley. It's a three chord progression at work here that stays throughout as Hungtai croons and yelps indecipherably.

'Sweet 17' is the second foray into that territory. A hypnotic rocker of a track, it gives the impression the speed of the road trip has gone up a notch. Its mono sounding loop is a head embedder than you'll find difficult to remove. Indeed, you may just find yourself humming it unconsciously until people around start looking strangely at you wondering if you've got a screw loose. Again Hungtai's added guitar over the loop gives the track added menace as his voice rises to yelping crescendo. 'A Hundred Highways' is where Dirty Beaches gets really dirty. Using as its base the vocal structure of 1963 track, 'I Will Follow Him' by Little Peggy March, if keeping to the road trip theme the whole track sounds like its being listened to slightly off station on the radio dial. As Hungtai takes his cue from Japanese psych rockers Les Rallizes Dénudés’ cover of the track, its almost as if things went a bit haywire during Sweet 17 and the driver is somewhat dazed and dishevelled. That's certainly the case with the added guitar here as it screams and squelches away uncontrollably. Are we headed for a crash?

The answer to that is no, close call maybe, as the album takes on a more introspective melodic feel illustrated by the latest single 'True Blue'. Taking the groove from The Ronettes 'Keep On Dancing', it meanders along nicely. The piano melody that underpins 'Lord Knows Best' is sampled directly from 'Voila', a 1967 hit by French chanteuse Françoise Hardy. Here Hungtai breathes his baritone vocals from deep inside an echo chamber giving the track an ethereal quality. Badlands returns to its earlier unease with 'Black Nylon' which is a throwback to Dirty Beaches early days and reminds of the menacing soundtracks of early silent horror flicks. 'Hotel' does little to put us at ease as its repetitive guitar loop and crackled vinyl leaves the impression that the road trip has ended in desolate territory.

Its understandable that an artist like Hungtai will illicit a myriad of opinions both favourable and downright unfavourable. Mining the past as he does without hiding and featuring it as the basis of his music opens him up to being labelled unoriginal. But therein lies the rub. Dirty Beaches is about themes, its about stories, its about shade and light, its about mood. Listening to Badlands in its entirety, you realise there's absolutely nothing out there that sounds like this at present nor generates a hypnotic atmosphere so economically and efficiently. In being accused of being unoriginal, he has created a package that's as close to original in its totality as you can get.

James Stocker - April 9, 2011.

 

A Hundred Highways

Dirty Beaches (CAN)
From the album, 'Badlands', Zoo Music

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RECORD REVIEW: KURT VILE - SMOKE RING FOR MY HALO
Reviews
Saturday, 02 April 2011 00:39

Matador

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Kurt Vile has been kicking around his unique brand of guitar based song writing for a decade or so now but it's only over the last four years that his solo work has come to the fore through the release of three albums in addition to a mini album and a spate of EPs. First coming to notice outside his home city of Philadelphia through his involvement in the band The War On Drugs, 2008 saw him venture out on his own with the release of his debut album Constant Hitmakeron Gulcher Records, a selection of DIY recordings which over time put Vile squarely in the indie spotlight once released a year later on Woodsist. In addition to the re-release, that same year, 2009, saw Vile drop no less than four new releases on four separate labels, the mini-album, God Is Saying This To You on Mexican Summer, the Fall Demons 7" EP on Skulltones, The Hunchback EP on Richie Records and finally the full length, Childish Prodigy in 2009 on Matador.

While this work landed him critical acclaim and lavish praise from fellow artists, the growth evident in his latest release, Smoke Ring For My Halo is undoubtedly Vile's high point, which promises to elevate him above the millieu of the very good. It's an album that celebrates all that is unique about an artist that is the very opposite of the usual rock guitarist virtuoso. For all the assuredness present, there is a vulnerability that underlies and underpins Vile's musical and lyrical constructions; an ever-present honesty and a truck load of integrity if at times there may be a misunderstood disingeniuity. The other thing that is impressive about Vile's approach is that while guitar is front and centre and forms the basis of each track, it never dominates, never overwhelms the essential, loosely written narrative, letting the songwriting breathe and as a result, flourish. Combinations of keyboard, harp, mellotron and slide add perfect accompaniments to that centre. Vile's dishevilled yet at times shining vocals round the package off nicely.

But just try to pin a style on Vile and you will falter. Smoke Ring For My Halo defies genre not only between tracks but within them. Being one dimensional is certainly something Vile could never be accused of. While rock is mostly the mainstay, elements of a variety of pop and folk stylings abound and the ease with which he switches between them is an example of a masterful songwriter at work. Equally, the timing signatures reek on the surface of ambivalence, speeding up and slowing down at will while the vocal structures are loose and tend to focus in or trail off with Vile's state of mind as if stream of conciousness is always at work. But careful listens and attention to detail will explode the certainty of that theory, indeed certainty is not something you can associate with any of Vile's songwriting. But he knows exactly what he's doing even if its not always entirely clear to the receipient. This is certainly the case lyrically with an abundance of the obtuse and confounding.

The aforementioned fragility is at once present on the album's opener, the wistful, 'Baby's Arms'. Vile sings ''I get sick of just about everyone, so I hide in my baby's arms'. It's a gorgeous piece of starry eyed folk achieved with a cosmic combination of acoustic guitar and carefully constructed electronic elements. 'Jesus Fever' is a joyous dose of spritely pop while 'Puppet To The Man' is a paean to the laid back rock of the past with its cascading hooks and melodies. As its title suggests, 'On Tour' is an introspective journey that matches the highs and lows of touring or just life in general. Vile sings, 'I wanna write my whole life down, Burn it there to the ground' before launching into a line about escapism. 'Society Is My Friend' contains an unsettling urgency with it's big drum sound, the constant tension of its guitars and accompanying embellishments and the reverb on Vile's vocals. You get the feeling that society as the metaphorical friend is a little two faced sometimes. Vile sings (society), 'it makes me laugh down in a cold blood bath'. The track also contains the classic line, although it's hard to connect it to anything, 'Kiss me with your mouth without closing it all that much'.

'Runner Up's sees Vile skirt up and down the guitar neck to enticing effect constructing a series of understated hooks that grab you instantly. 'In My Time' contains pure unadulterated lashings of rock and roll goodness between the exquisite jangly pop of verse and chorus. Vile's ability to change in and out of genre effortlessly is what sets him apart from many. The three guitar melodies in the lyrically cagey 'Peeping Tomboy', with its strange delayed timing signature and retarded, bedraggled vocals. The way Vile stretches and compresses the former while doing similar with his voice makes it a very special piece of music. The title track has a country rock swagger while the closing number, 'Ghost Town' is at first a little underwhelming but closer examinations prove it to be a hypnotic, somewhat cathartic ride. The album's final line sums the album and artist up perfectly, 'Raindrops might fall on my head sometimes, I don’t pay ’em any mind'.

The undoubted strength of Smoke Ring For My Halo is Kurt Vile's ability to make disinterestedly intense music. A hook laden, yet tonally condensed album that is dirty yet clean, meandering, yet taut, careless, yet careful and cryptic, yet obvious. Loose ends are seemingly left untied but if that's the case why the fulfillment once the last track ends? Indeed, it is easy to become obsessed as the album is such an effortless, enticing experience. The sheer density, yet spaciousness of his songwriting means Vile has now entered the pantheon of great artists whose music will more than stand the test of time. Smoke Ring For My Halo will prove to be an album that will always be easy to get out of the collection, dust off and give a spin. Indeed, repeat listens will prove to be involuntarily mandatory and that dust, for the most part, may not even have time to settle.

James Stocker - April 2, 2010.

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Peeping Tomboy

Kurt Vile (USA)
From the album, 'Smoke Ring For My Halo', Matador

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Live Performance

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...and Kurt Vile buying some records - Record Store Day - April 16 - more soon.

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RECORD REVIEW: PJ HARVEY - LET ENGLAND SHAKE
Reviews
Sunday, 27 March 2011 02:35

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Island/Vagrant

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Since beginning her musical career around twenty years ago, PJ Harvey has been at the top of her game producing powerful albums that cross genres including rock, electronica, folk, punk blues and pop. Her work has been highly regarded over this time as she has reinvented herself time and time again, culminating with her eighth LP released in February, Let England Shake. This album has been a long time in the making, work began back in 2007 during the release of her introspective piano heavy White Chalk, and was recorded over five weeks in a Dorset church early last year. The high regard Harvey is held in by people in the industry is evident by the list of producers who contributed to Let England Shake, namely long time collaborator John Parish, Mick Harvey (The Birthday Party, The Bad Seeds), and Flood (Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Depache Mode, The Jesus And Mary Chain to name a few). Harvey herself also served as producer. What they have come up with is another incarnation of the artist who is always striving to deliver a fresh new take on her work. She has said of Let England Shake; "All I can say is that I am pleased with it, because I feel it's a grand departure from anything [I've done] before. If I've done that, then for me, it's worked. I'm already feeling like I did, and I'm happy. I'm very pleased because I'm not repeating myself."  With so many indie artists hitting the airwaves and then disappearing into obscurity, it's mighty rare to find someone of Harvey's calibre. She has proven that through making intelligent choices, it is possible to remain poignant and relevant after two decades in the game. The fact that Let England Shake debuted at number eight on the UK Albums Chart, eighteen years after Rid Of Me peaked at number three is testament to this.

Harvey drew upon many influences for the album, musically, visually and lyrically. She has cited the surrealist works of Salvador Dali and the macabre hellish paintings of Francisco Goya, as well as the poetry of TS Eliot and Harold Pinter. Musically, The Pogues, The Velvet Underground and The Doors. Conflict is a current running through Let England Shake, with the title possibly referring to public opinion across her country in relation to its involvement in the 'war on terror'. She read testimonies of soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more than one song references the battle of Gallipoli and World War One in general.

'Let England Shake' the title track is first up on the LP, she played it live earlier this year on the Andrew Marr show with a sample of 'Istanbul (Not Constantinople) part of the track, this has since been scrapped after she decided it held the song back. A hint of the tune is still present sounding as if it's emerging from an ancient music box, with her new instrument of choice, the autoharp droning throughout. 'The Last Living Rose' has sparing and effective use of brass and tambourine with somewhat politicised lyrics, "Past the Thames River glistening, like gold, hastily sold, for nothing". 'The Glorious Land' is again harking back to the theme of war and battles, an oddly placed bugle calling 'reveille' plays three times during the minute long introduction, so oddly placed it may have some people looking around the room for a misplaced mobile phone receiving a text message. However it sets the military tone, in this track full of call and response, "Oh America, Oh England", before moving into possibly the most evocative track on the album, 'The Words That Maketh Murder'. The picture painted in this song is a grisly one, recalling the images of the aformentioned Goya. "I've seen and done things I want to forget, I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat, blown and shot out beyond belief, arms and legs were in the trees", the track picks up tempo becoming more urgent as it progresses. A male backing vocal track sounding Oompah-Loompah like comes in and repeats the vocal hook, before the outro asks the question, "What if I take my problem to the United Nations?".

'All And Everyone' is the longest track at just over five and a half minutes, and begins with a lighter touch but soon descends into another portrayal of the senselessness of war. We are on the beach again here, the horn section adding a layer of atmosphere, but it's her upfront vocals which provide the strength to this track. 'England' has her vocal gymnastics on full show, at times sounding almost like a middle-eastern call to prayer. 'Bitter Branches' is a snappy tune just over two minutes in length, the fastest track on the album. 'Written On The Forehead' builds up nicely with a synth layer giving way to a sample by Niney The Observer, 'Blood And Fire', an old reggae track which sits perfectly alongside Harvey's urgent vocals.

Let England Shake is rounded off with John Parish on vocals with Harvey on the last track, 'The Colour Of The Earth'. Guitar driven, with flashes of tambourine and little else, Parish sings "Louis was my dearest friend, fighting in the ANZAC trench", musically it's stripped back with lots of reverb on the autoharp, having the sound right there on the recording of the church space used for this album. The videos have been shot by veteran war photographer Seamas Murphy, after Harvey contacted him to get an idea of what it was like in wars that he covered as part of the research for this album. All twelve tracks have videos, and will be released over the year.

This is a very different direction for PJ Harvey indeed, which is exactly as intended, and a reason she has sustained her reputation over many years as a vitally important part of the indie music world. Her intelligence and massive talent combine to deliver a punch with every album, here she has managed to make a statement about the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, war in general, by recalling the horrors of the Great War. Through her songs the dusty memories of that time have served to educate the folly of war in all cases, everywhere. She is at the top of her game and we can only look forward to what she has in store for us with album number nine.

Dave Roberts - March 27, 2011

 


The Words That Maketh Murder

PJ Harvey (ENG)
From the album, 'Let England Shake', Island/Vagrant

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RECORD REVIEW: CASA DEL MIRTO - 1979
Reviews
Sunday, 20 March 2011 07:29

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CASA DEL MIRTO - 1979

MASHHH! Records

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From the foothills of the Alps, in Trento Italy, come the beautiful languid sounds of Casa Del Mirto. A fitting location for this dreamy disco pop which is the work of Marco Ricci. With origins in producing club music in the mid 2000s, Ricci's early work had hints of 90s house, fast beats and piano loops certain to get arses on the dancefloor in seconds. While he excelled at this genre, he had other ideas in mind, and took a left turn to immerse himself in his love of chamber music and more introspective, personal and intimate tracks. So we have 1979, Casa Del Mirto's debut LP, twelve songs which have been described as tropical, dreamwave, disco house and shoegaze, whatever you call it, it's infectious and soothing stuff. 

Ricci's first releases, Supertrendycoolfashion, Numero Uno, The Eternal and Acafulcro are available to download from his myspace and are definitely worth a listen, with the latter two EP's marking his change in direction. It all comes together on 1979, (the year of his birth) with a set of strong tracks featuring reverb, loops, samples and synths set amongst beats from a Roland 505 drum machine. 'The Right Way' kicks off the LP after the short intro with a blast. Simple in structure, like many found on 1979, it skims along having just the right amount of house influence in it while still sitting firmly in 2011. Next up, 'The Haste' continues to prove less is more, delivering a track that ebbs and flows with golden vocals layered along minimal synth lines. 'Pain In My Hands' takes a step back and is more of an acoustic ballad with 'Killer Haze' having a nice retro tinge and another great example of the tight production values there in every track. 'Deep In your Mind' is another standout track on 1979, dripping with lo-fi synths and drum machine with vocals sounding filtered and far away. 'Club Mare' is a sexy funk laden tune placed well towards the back of the album. It is an LP to listen to on headphones, undoubtedly the best way to appreciate all the nuances present throughout. 

Ricci has said of the moniker "Casa del Mirto" means "Home of myrtle". "Myrtle is a plant often used for spirits. It’s actually hard to find where I live, but I really liked the name. Now, after 2 years I think it is a cacophonic name, but it’s the only one I got! So I don’t think about it and I drink the liquor". Sounds good to me. 1979 has also been released with fourteen different remixes of seven tracks, which can be streamed here at Pig Radio. These versions are a welcome addition for fans eager to have another fix of the hypnotic stylings Casa Del Mirto have delivered here. You can also purchase the LP on cassette, if anyone still has a tape deck that works! Check it out in whatever format you choose, you won't be disappointed.

Dave Roberts - March 20, 2011

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Killer Haze

Casa Del Mirto (ITA)
From the album, '1979', MASHHH!

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Casa Del Mirto myspace

 

The Haste

Casa Del Mirto (ITA)
From the album, '1979', MASHHH!

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RECORD REVIEW: PURO INSTINCT - HEADBANGERS IN ECSTASY
Reviews
Saturday, 12 March 2011 00:27

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PURO INSTINCT - HEADBANGERS IN ECSTASY

Mexican Summer

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If you're looking for an album that exudes something approaching technical perfection you won't find it on the debut album from California's Puro Instinct. Formerly Pearl Harbor, the band formed by Piper and Skylar Kaplan (the latter is just 16 and still at school) a couple of years back is now however, in more filled out form and does now have a set of accomplished musicians (said Cody Porter, Jessie Clavin, Mike Baum, and Crazy Murray) that do lend a sense of virtuosity. That said, missteps abound but that is of no matter. The Kaplan sisters are not going to win any gongs for their vocal abilities, although when singing in harmony they're actually quite good. When singing individually however, the often deadpan delivery may turn the impatient off completely. But it's actually that delivery when paired with jangly, shimmering, summery melodies that serve the record so well. Music is more than just skill and technical prowess. If it was limited to that, we'd all be listening exclusively to the work of session musos. Music is often more about the intangible. Quite simply, it isn't science, it is art. And there's enough of the intangible mixed with musical skill on the mis-named Headbangers In Ecstasy to deem it an impressive and promising first venture.

It's clear where the sisters influences come from. 70s AM pop and rock and 80's dream and jangle pop are alternatively ever present. Fleetwood Mac, Cocteau Twins, Mitch Easter's criminally underrated Lets Active, R.E.M and the elusive psychedelic outsider Bobb Trimble among others. There's even a nod to the girl groups of the mid 60's at times on 'Vapor Girls'. Their seemingly seamless ability to work over different styles and eras within songs is undoubtedly a strength. Another presence is the recently redoubtable Ariel Pink, currently basking in the glow of his brilliant album Before Today. It's not so much his virtually insignificant vocal contribution to the album's best track 'Stilyagi' as his contribution to the album's whole approach. The lo-fi echoed sound and washed out textures that characterise the album's production are classic Pink. There's quite a similarity here with both Pink and the Kaplan Sisters in terms of trajectory. Both have surrounded themselves with musicians that have helped flesh out their music and brought it out of the private domain and both subscribe to the 'skillful, non skill... 'whatever it is that you're doing, don't figure it out' line of thinking when it comes to creating their sound.**

The lo-fi production values also suit the album's certain je ne sais quoi. There's an underlying fragility that's ever present on Headbangers In Ecstasy that almost seems to come out as unconcious self-conciousness. That doesn't mean that they've gone into their shell and withheld anything. The often detached disposition of the Kaplan Sisters is more about them actually knowing their limitations and celebrating them in organic fashion rather than trying to over-compensate, undersell themselves or cynically portray them as cool. There are plenty of that type kicking about. Structurally, the album is a triumph. Each track is cleverly written with each verse and chorus of equal attraction and each are peppered with easily accessible hooks and melodies and intelligent and appropriate guitar licks and solos. Ear candy really.

'Lost At Sea' is a standout, with its killer melody, cleverly contructed duelling guitar work, kick-ass chorus and effective backing vocals. 'Silky Eyes' begins with a circus like theme before breaking into a drama filled chorus and contains has a killer bass fill and a memorable fret tapping filled guitar solo. 'Slivers Of You' is an upbeat Lets Active inspired piece of jangly pop goodness. 'Stilyagi' is a chilled out ode to courageous Russian youth that dared to subvert the drab Soviet machine with fashion and attitude during the 40s, 50s and 60s. And yes it does have relevance to the Kaplan's who, rather than just stumbling across the Russian word and thinking it would be cool to use, are actually influenced by the fashion sense and outsider culture of 1980s Russian 'Red' wave acts. 'California Shakedown' deals with the darker undertones of said state and is a treatment of their take onhow a hypocritical United States continues to hide its corrupt, seedy underside, a contradiction that preoccupies Piper Kaplan in particular.

While everyone is entitled to their own opinion and the reviews for Headbangers In Ecstasy have been mixed, it's unfortunate that some haven't spent more time with the record or bothered to mine below its surface. Because descriptions like 'shallow' and 'wafer thin', 'wispy', 'fluffy' and 'drippy' are clearly out of context and therefore grossly unwarranted. They actually ignore it's organic nature - nothing plastic here. A real examination of this album will shoot holes in such assessments. There is great depth of songwriting - a great awareness of history, hook and melody and how they can be constructed into great songs, even if delivered with fragility in a box labelled 'handle with care'. The trimmings (i.e. the guitar solos) embellish those constructions no end. No-one should confuse production values with the quality of the music on offer. Like it's airbrushed cover, if you don't like it's washed out sound that's fine but if it's not understood that the lo-fi production and the album's fragile disposition go together then the penny hasn't dropped. Clearly, if you like pop music you should love Puro Instinct and you should love Headbangers In Ecstasy. A self-examination of why you like pop in the first place is in order if you don't.

**Quote taken from Altered Zones. Interview here

James Stocker - March 12, 2010.

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Lost At Sea

Puro Instinct (USA)
From the album, 'Headbangers In Ecstasy', Mexican Summer.

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RECORD REVIEW: MOGWAI - HARDCORE WILL NEVER DIE, BUT YOU WILL
Reviews
Saturday, 05 March 2011 00:00

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MOGWAI - Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

Rock Action/Sub Pop

Mogwai Official Site

Buy here

What is it about Mogwai that has some music critics and post rock afficionados expecting a masterpiece every time they drop a record. Is it the fact they are that good, is it just a burden that post rock bands have to shoulder or does it have something to do with the fact that their first album, Young Team, was just that - a masterpiece?  Fourteen years is a long time to be waiting for another and for sure, through their subsequent long players, Mogwai haven't delivered it, nor even threatened to. And they haven't with their seventh either, the streamlined Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will, though it is the closest they have come. But so what. Masterpieces aside, this is an impressive return to form for the Scottish quintet, an album that gives you the impression that Mogwai are acutely aware of the expectations on them to make sprawlingly complex compositions and have delivered a big fuck you to that.

While on the surface, a first listen through might leave you with the impression that not a great deal has changed in this area from the last two middling to good albums, The Hawk Is Howling and Mr. Beast. However, what is noticeable the more time spent with the record is the change employed to their song structures. Largely gone is the sudden explosion of crescendo as a more subtle, stealth like approach to altering the sonic landscape has been employed. Witness 'White Noise', 'How To Be A Werewolf' and You're Lionel Richie' as ample evidence. It's also a more diverse album than many of its predecessors.

The post rock sound and style abound but elements of krautrock, pop, garage and post hardcore are added to the mix. Hardcore... also sees a slimmer, more taut Mogwai as each song has been trimmed of fat and sits at just the right length. With the exception of the closer, none of them exceed seven minutes. And as the brilliant photography of city shrouded in mist on the cover and inside gatefold suggests, Mogwai's sound is as ever, urban yet organic. It broods, it pines, it cries but it also laughs - possessing a sense of humour has always being one of the band's strong points.

Opener 'White Noise' begins the journey with its initially stripped back motorik opening giving way to chiming pastoral synths before the mountains of distortion kicks in. 'Mexican Grand Prix' constantly pulsates as synth and vocoder are used to lasting effect. It's the closest to pop that Mogwai are going to get. 'Rano Pano' is a tense ride, beginning with a menacing guitar riff from Dominic Aitchison, Barry Burns and Stuart Braithwaite amped in triplicate and even quadruplicate at times with guest muso Luke Sutherland joining in. The riff continues throughout the track as synth and effects wind around it sucking it into a spiralling vortex. 'Death Rays' contains the element of hope in the midst adversity that has always been one of the band's signature moves. 'San Pedro' is a four to the floor rocker that is completed by a huge post rock maelstrom.

'Letters To The Metro' is more than just a holder to fill out the middle. It's simple piano chords and slide guitar evoke emotion and contemplation and produce a rather cathartic experience. The album's best track also has the best track name heard for some time. 'George Square Thatcher Death Party' packs a mighty wallop as constant synths underpin driving guitar work as the vocoder makes another appearance to awesome effect. The hypnotic 'How To Be A Werewolf' brings things down a notch but still keeps things kicking with its ode to the homeland while the curiously named 'Too Raging To Cheers' is vintage Mogwai with its descending guitar chords grinding away inexorably. 'You're Lionel Richie' is hardcore's 'Tracy' embedding itself in surrepticious fashion as it nestles down inside the eardrums.

The intangibles are what make Mogwai a great band. Creating another masterpiece may be beyond them, and indeed, beyond the post rock genre itself, but that is of no importance. Masterpieces in music and art in general are accidental, they are very rarely made. With each listen for whatever reason, Hardcore... gets better and better and may indeed become the record the critics have been waiting for. With all Mogwai records, time is of the essence, investment of time is what is demanded and time is what will be rewarded. Hardcore... rewards in spades and reminds us that the Scottish quintet are just as vital in 2011 as at anytime in their 15 or so year history. The genre of post rock may be in trouble, but with Mogwai still able to produce gems like this, there may be an inventive bright future after all. To all the naysayers out there tearing their hair out waiting for the mythical masterpiece...just don't be so serious!

James Stocker - March 5, 2011.

 

Rano Pano

Mogwai (SCO)
From the album, 'Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will', Rock Action/Sub Pop

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Official Video

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RECORD REVIEW: JAMES BLAKE - JAMES BLAKE
Reviews
Sunday, 27 February 2011 01:17

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JAMES BLAKE - James Blake

Atlas / A & M

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For a musician who released his first EP a little over 18 months ago, James Blake has impressed many with his unique and delicate blend of ambient electro music. Strong yet fragile vocals sit at the forefront of his tracks but without taking away from the careful instrumentation and layers of samples, drum machine, piano, synths and sequencing. He was noticed immediately upon the first release in July 2009, with Air & Lack Therof which came out on the dubstep label Hemlock Recordings. DJ Gilles Peterson picked up the EP and gave it exposure on his BBC 1 show, before inviting Blake in to perform a set on his international radio show. Equally successful were his subsequent EPs released in 2010, The Bells Sketch, CMYK, and finally Klavierwerke, all receiving loads of DJ love and rounding off a busy and productive year, culminating with Blake being awarded the number two position of BBCs Sound Of 2011 poll. This chart heralds the coming year's 'likely successful musicians', and saw him placing in front of acts like Jamie Woon, The Vaccines and Clare Maguire.

Perhaps his biggest breakthrough came with cover of 'Limit To Your Love' originally recorded by Canadian indie songstress Feist, making it into the UK singles chart and chosen by DJ Zane Rowe as 'The Hottest Record In The World'. The self titled LP was dropped February 7 and features eleven tracks, each one experimental, unique and undoubtedly his own. There are elements of soul, rhythm and blues and even gospel to be found here, but twisted through his use of technology and treatment to create an inimitable piece of work. 

Vocoders usually serve as a blinding signal that what you are listening to is, well, shit. But it's not the case here, it serves a purpose and works beautifully accentuating Blake's vocal delicateness as on the opening track, 'Unluck'. From this we move into 'Wilhelm's Scream', where we hear the undercurrents of that sub base which dominates several songs of this LP. 'Lindesfarne I' is stripped back to the bare minimum, using vocoder once more and little else before gliding into the second part of the track.

'Limit To Your Love' highlights the incredible and powerful way Blake uses silence so effectively, holding it mid track, for a second, a void that just adds that extra dimension. When the vacuum is filled with the multi track harmonies and bass, Blake's skill as producer and singer are clear to see. 'Why Don't You Call Me' begins with only piano and voice before taking a swift left turn at forty seconds in, where he samples the piano track and vocals into a strange and awkward tangent. 'I Mind', the second part of this track, sees more subtle flourishes, drifting in and out, in dreamlike fashion, a steady percussive click and synths adding to its atmosphere. The album closer, 'Measurements' has a heap of layering going on, vocals over vocals in a somewhat gospel sounding track again highlighting the range and maturity this young singer songwriter is capable of. 

There is certain sense of mystery throughout this LP, which is hard to pin down. Blake is a musician with many facets, the album cover alludes to this. He has given us just a taste of what he can do, and there is definitely more to be revealed from this talented genre defying artist.

Dave Roberts - February 27, 2011 

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The Wilhelm Scream

James Blake (ENG)
From the album, 'James Blake', Atlas / A & M

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James Blake myspace

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ALBUM OF THE YEAR

JULIA HOLTER (USA)

Have You In My Wilderness

Domino

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TRACK OF THE YEAR

LOWER DENS (USA)

Your Heart Still Beating

Ribbon Music

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KELELA (USA)

Hallucinogen 

Cherry Coffee/Warp Records

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