Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Next Year In Zion - Herman Düne

The fifth studio album from French duo Herman Düne was recorded in the legendary Exile on Main Street studios in Southern France, where the Rolling Stones decamped in 1971 to avoid paying taxes and finish the album of the same name. Herman Düne recorded the album on the same EMI desk borrowed from Abbey Road that the Stones recorded a large section of their roots influenced classic. Certainly Herman Düne draw upon the same canvas of influences; rock and roll, clues, country and soul.
Musically the album features the jazz inflected guitars, female backing vocals (with June Carter Cash as the archetype rather than the 60s girl group harmonies of the 1-2-3 Apple Tree EP), bourbon soaked horns and clipped drum beats from earlier recordings, replete with beautifully phrased solos and slide guitar that add texture and refinement to the proceedings. You have to wonder why the album was released in September, as its ambience is custom-made for a summer’s evening.
One thing that is immediately noticeable is singer David-Ivar Herman Düne’s delivery. While still a naive, yearning vocal style, tinged with regret, he appears to have grown in stature. David-Ivar’s vocals are less redolent of adolescence. Another improvement is the production. While fellow anti-folk artist Jeffery Lewis’ albums sound as though they were recorded in a bedroom with one guitar and a suitcase for drums, Next Year in Zion showcases a growing sophistication that distances them from their peers. What has always shined through on their tracks is their humanity, but on songs such as “When the Sun Rose up This Morning” or “On a Saturday” this is married to the sheen of the production.
There is one detrimental aspect to this emergent erudition. Previously they were a trio, until guitarist André Düne left after the recording sessions for previous album Giant, not even staying to tour the record. The songs on Next Year in Zion are perfectly crafted, but they do lack the musical complexity of the songs he would contribute to the band. A minor gripe, but it is clear that as a band Herman Düne are a very different proposition to the anti-folk band they started out as nearly a decade ago.
Instead Next Year in Zion belongs to a cultural and musical tradition that can be traced from Delta Blues, to Johnny Cash, Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen. However Herman Düne filter these traditional influences through Jonathan Richman-esque wry, observational lyrical preoccupations and Daniel Johnston’s grasp of melody. Thus a song such as “My Baby Is Afraid of Sharks” takes a traditional song structure, yet inverts our perceptions with the lyrical content.
John Peel was an ardent admirer of Herman Düne’s, and he is normally a good barometer for a band’s qualities. They recorded six sessions for Peel, including one at Peel Acres (a rare honour), while “Drug Dealer in the Park” featured in his Festive 50 countdown from 2000. Previously they have occasionally failed to live up to their billing, yet Next Year in Zion is a well produced gem of an album, focused and coherent, that firmly places them in the canon next to their idols. It is hard to find a weak track amongst the dozen here; the only slight complaint would be aforementioned uniformity between the songs but when they’re this charming, idiosyncratic and well crafted it appears curmudgeonly to carp. Next Year in Zion is avant-pop music for those who think Sticky Fingers, The Modern Lovers and Brighten the Corners are amongst the greatest albums ever produced.

This article was originally produced for To read the music review of Next Year In Zion by Herman Dune on the site, please click on the article title.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Beg, Steal or Borrow #1

The basic premise of this segment is to publicise important new releases that I believe everyone should listen to, no matter how, then to counterpoint those with albums that may have influenced them in some way. Here goes.

Department of Eagles – In Ear Park (2008)
Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes (2008)
TV on the Radio – Dear Science (2008)
Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska (1982)
Neutral Milk Hotel – In The Airplane Over The Sea (1998)
Bon Iver – For Emma Forever Ago (2007)
Beirut – The Flying Club Cup (2007)
Talking Heads – Fear Of Music (1979)
Saul Williams – Amethyst Rock Star (2001)
Dennis Wilson – Pacific Ocean Blue (1977)

Happy listening.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Drugs - The Music

When The Music released their debut album in 2001 they were a hotly tipped new act, drooled over by the music press for their mix of baggy vibes and bluesy riffing. At the time rock and dance music were considered mutually exclusive, yet fast forward seven years and the two are combined in ever increasing ways. Music fashion being the cyclical beast it is could The Music be considered relevant? It seems unlikely that they will grace the cover of NME at this stage in their career, having been usurped by younger, unsullied acts.
Since their debut they have released a stodgy sophomore effort (2004's Welcome to the North) and singer Robert Harvey has undergone rehabilitation for drug and alcohol addiction. Harvey’s experience and his battle to escape these dependencies inform much of the new album Strength in Numbers’ lyrical output.
The Music have updated their sound in the intervening years. There is a welcome subtlety on the third single from Strength in Numbers, “Drugs”. Gone are the Zeppelin-lite, bluesy riffs of earlier releases. Sonically, the single is more refined and textured than the output on the first two albums. “Drugs” is awash with synthetic texture, much like The Verve’s recent single “Love Is Noise”. Harvey sings in a lower register on the verses, creating a sense of intimacy and vulnerability, before opening up for the anthemic choruses. Combining an emotional starkness with a stadium-ready chorus is nothing new, but it works.
The pantheon of rock music is littered with those thrown by the wayside. Credit The Music for escaping the darker aspects of fatalism and enthrallment to substances and producing a solid third album. “Drugs” is a laudable effort, but you get the feeling that it won’t convert any new fans.

This article was originally produced for To read the music review of Drugs by The Music on the site, please click on the article title.

The Geeks Were Right - The Faint

Omaha five piece The Faint return after a four year absence with new single “The Geeks Were Right”, taken from parent album Fasciinatiion. The song begins with angular guitars, before building in a fat synth bassline and vocodered vocals. It certainly ticks all the boxes of a guaranteed floor filler at your local indie disco, but it is let down by poor attention to structure and some genuinely lumpen musical segues featuring hilariously inappropriate arpeggiated synths.
Todd Fink claims the lyrics were inspired by Futurism; certainly lyrically The Faint has always shown the future as present past. The phrase “The geeks were right” in itself appears to be a separatist claim of the underdog, fighting the corner of those with “thin white legs” and initially the lyrics appear to be celebratory, revelling in the conquest of the “eggheads”, but further inspection reveals that they are striking a warning note, decrying the need to “Watch what the humans ruin with machines”. Like the music backing these nebulous sentiments, it promises much but says little. Instead of celebrating the future that they have seen, they hark back to a time pre-machine while Futurism espouses the triumph of technology over nature.
When first they arrived in our consciousness in the late 90s they heralded a new musical genre, electroclash. Unfortunately for The Faint upon returning they’ve found that there are new, more relevant bands occupying their place. They have become a parody of themselves, lacking energy and new ideas. Their second album Danse Macabre promised much, but having returned to the fray in 2008 it appears they have little to add to their own canon let alone the genre they work in.

This article was originally produced for To read the music review of The Geeks Were Right by The Faint on the site, please click on the article title.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Oblige - I Concur

Latest release from the Leeds based four piece was recorded by Tom Woodhead of ¡Forward Russia! This is an interesting place to start; Woodhead is a much feted and sought after producer, yet the production here is flat and uninspired, failing to lift the songs beyond the humdrum.
“Oblige” begins with a jangly, minor key guitar refrain. Keyboards fill out the sound, harmonised vocals sweep in and out of the mix. Despite their best efforts, they can’t divert you from a feeling of torpor. The song strains for a crescendo, but it is not attained. Part of the problem is the flatness of the vocals; they are delivered in a perfunctory fashion, but do not have that sense of urgency or immediacy that marks out a great vocal line.
B-side “Captors” better demonstrates their grasp of song dynamics. The song is in constant flux, building, receding before it reconstructs once more. The track lurches forward propulsively, driven by the rhythm section while the angular guitars interweave.
The single and its B-side are less grandiose than their earlier efforts, with guitars heavier and far more prominent. The ambient aural swirls of “Lucky Jack” and “Build Around Me” are replaced with turgid guitar work. The straightforward approach suits them not. “Captors” hints at a level of sophistication and musicality that they are obviously capable of but don’t meet on this release.
In an attempt to meld the sweeping grandeur of Interpol with the downtrodden, hometown melodrama of The National, I Concur wear their influences compulsively on their sleeve. At this moment in their progression there exists a gap between their own perceptions of the music and the actual musical output, but as they themselves intone, “Have patience...”

This article was originally produced for To read the music review of Oblige by I Concur on the site, please click on the article title.

Wendy - Attic Lights

Beach Boys influenced orchestral pop meets Graham Coxon-esque guitar work on Attic Lights’ latest release “Wendy”.
Whilst “Wendy” is a well honed pop song with an infectious melody, it is hard to escape the sensation that we have heard the song before. It is certainly fun, good knockabout stuff, but the musical stylings adapted by the Glasgow band are a well ploughed furrow. Recent acts such as The Rumble Strips, The Thrills and even The Feeling have produced similarly wistful pop music. It wouldn’t sound out of place on a Supernaturals album, or any other Britpop band of the era. The Britpop stylings are perhaps explained by the presence of Teenage Fanclub’s drummer Francis Macdonald in the producer’s chair, whose own band also had a canny way with a melody and a 60s West Coast style harmony.
While this vein of songwriting tradition may affirm the melody’s timeless quality, this is a double-edged sword. With such precedence for this arch and wry take on the pop song, the song itself has to transcend its particular genre. But whereas a band like Ben Folds Five would deconstruct the pop song, strip to its bare elements and still stimulate you with their grasp of songcraft and wordplay, “Wendy” is a charming song with little depth.
The overall impression of “Wendy” is of an accomplished, proficient pop song with a melody designed to burrow slowly and insidiously into your cranium. The close harmonies are a highlight, as is the aforementioned guitar work from Jamie Huston and the strings scored by Bjorn Ytlling of Peter, Bjorn and John. But beneath the polished surface lies a band that is still a work in progress.

This article was originally produced for To read the music review of Wendy by Attic Lights on the site, please click on the article title.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

The Headmaster Ritual - Radiohead

Radiohead cover "The Headmaster Ritual" by The Smiths, which opened their seminal album Meat is Murder. Please click on the article title to watch, as it's great.

Work - Blue Orchids

“Work, work, work, work, work, work, work, work...” goes the exultant cry.
Blue Orchids were formed by Martin Bramah and Una Baines, both former members of The Fall, in late 1979. They were famously named by John Cooper Clarke, punk poet and survivor of the sixties, who imagined them as 'a bunch of haemophiliacs raised by Alsatian dogs on a council tip'. Bramah and Baines, the axis around which the band rotated, were joined by Rick Goldstraw on bass and Ian Rogers on drums and spent much of the following year working on material.
At a time when Bruce Springsteen was celebrating the blue collar worker in America and thus affirming (according to Marxist idioms) man’s eternal right and desire to ‘work’, the Blue Orchids were painting a very different picture. Instead of revelling in tales of working life they paint a picture of a dislocated society. We are all “golden salmon, swimming against the tide of life”. On their debut single “The Flood” they had sang about the overwhelming sensation hallucinogens had on the system, but on their second 7 inch they were addressing the quandaries facing the nation.
While Britain had 3 million unemployed, Martin Bramah invoked the power of work. Not long beforehand the winter of discontent had seen 1 million trade union members laid off. Employment was an emotive issue. The song is a spiritual cousin of The Specials’ “Ghost Town”, an indictment of the failure of government to provide for its populace. Both released in early 1981, they highlight the desolation going on in the inner cities of the United Kingdom, be it Coventry or Manchester.
Musically Blue Orchids took the chilled out, drug influenced West Coast sound of bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and the Doors and filtered them through the grim, sodium lit, urban decay of late 1970s inner city Manchester. The band’s music invokes a kind of spiritual wanderlust, sensual and boundless, but rooted endlessly and irrevocably in Manchester. However they are less furious than Joy Division, less raucous than The Fall. Their songs are labyrinthine, a myriad of guitar lines and keyboards interlacing above a steady backbeat. On their debut album The Greatest Hit (Money Mountain) this psychedelic tradition is evident, yet on “Work” the soundscape is darker, spiteful, denser, colder, and has much more in common with the East Coast pioneers the Velvet Underground. Their link with the Velvets is well known; they worked as backing band for Nico, the Belgian chanteuse who appeared with the Velvets in the late 60s. There are many who feel that becoming her backing band, and the hard drugs it opened them up to, ended the band as a creative force for many years. Being a band for which recreational drug use was par for the course, the absence of work was seen as liberating.
“Work” is a far darker piece of music than appeared on their debut album released just three months later. Bramah traces out discordant patterns on his guitar, constantly picking out a lead motif that is constantly evolving, fluid, not fixed. Una Baines organ soars above, freewheeling above the tight mesh of the rhythm guitars. The whole sound is tense, stretched taut over the structure. Bramah’s voice stretches too, cracking as it strains to reach the notes. Skittish, dub style drums clatter and thrash in the background. They had taken the sound of psychedelia and inverted it, infusing it with a barely restrained fury, redolent of Germanic acts such as Can, Neu! and Faust.
The song ends on a celebratory note, guitars ringing out as Baines’ organ soars. The celebration of not going to ‘work’, the celebration of individuality, the celebration of liberating oneself from society, the celebration of drugs, the celebration of dissidence and the celebration of the soul that endures. “Work” is one of the few pieces they recorded that hint at a greater social awareness; the majority of their canon is insular, introspective in which the personal becomes political.