Sunday, 26 July 2009
Merchant is the debut album from Model Warships, the nom-de-plume of Leeds musician Michael Waters. The album's nine tracks are graced with a lo-fi bedroom quality which frequently turns the writhing mass of instruments into a mess of static and hiss. The songs are all works of catharsis – a floor covered in shards of broken glass, with Waters' voice trying to make tentative steps across, never quite realising that it can't get all the way through without screaming. It makes for uncomfortable listening, be it for the dense murk of the production - see the near instrumental "I Will Drag", which makes "Treefingers" sound like a kids TV theme tune, and "Damned Actors"'s descent into indistinguishable squalling madness – or the tortured howl into which Waters' vocals frequently descend, even when singing a League of Gentlemen punchline as blackly comic as "When you step off the edge, you'll look down like that fucker from Roadrunner."
The songs themselves are as strong as they are complex. "Good Actors" is as close as Merchant comes to a moment of serenity, or (whisper it) a pop song; built on a spiralling guitar line, and gilded with some delicate piano and synth strings, it comes on like Xiu Xiu covering Idlewild on broken equipment. Meanwhile, closing track "Bad Wolves" is a haunted duet with another Leeds musician, Natalie Guest; the pair trade resignedly dramatic lines ("I am tired all the time/Can you leave me be?") over a hypnotic mix of Philip Glass-style arpeggios and dark folky strums. The highlight is "Muddy Flow", in which Waters' disembodied vocal floats over a lush river of softly strummed guitars and what sounds like a guitar made of a tissue box and elastic bands, like some kind of Pitchfork-approved Ophelia.
Merchant can be an intense proposition to absorb in one sitting – it really does sound like Waters is losing his marbles, one note at a time – but that's a relatively minor complaint about an otherwise striking debut. If you’re actually enjoying being cooped up inside during this run of rainy summer days, this might just be the perfect soundtrack.
Sunday, 24 May 2009
Let's face it, The Lemonheads' 2006 comeback album was a disappointment; while occasional tracks like 'No Backbone' and 'Pittsburgh' reminded people why Evan Dando (and longtime songwriting partner Tom Morgan, who was behind 'Backbone') was once a force to be reckoned with, the album as a whole seemed as aimless and lazy as its title (The Lemonheads), especially when compared to Dando's 2003 'solo' album Baby I'm Bored, his most coherant and rewarding set in a decade. Varshons, produced by Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes, makes no effort to tip the balance one way or another; a collection of covers, it clocks in at just over half an hour (just like its predecessor), but doesn't seem to be tarnished by any sense of what people might want from a new Lemonheads record. It's this casual - but by no means tossed-off - air that makes Varshons possibly the strongest (though hardly the most consistent) album to bear the Lemonheads name since the mid-nineties.
The Lemonheads have always had a winning way with covers; 'Different Drum' became the band's breakthrough single, while even It's a Shame About Ray, as genuinely flawless a collection of songs as it is, ends with a song from the musical Hair!. One longtime source of inspiration has always been Gram Parsons - Dando has covered a number of songs from his catalogue, including a version of 'Brass Buttons' on the band's major label debut Lovey, and reworking the classic 'How Much I've Lied' for a 1993 radio session with the beautiful and talented Juliana Hatfield. It's therefore fitting that Varshons kicks off with another Parsons track, this time a rough, but instantly loveable early number of his, entitled 'I Just Can't Take It Anymore', which was only officially released at the start of this decade. The 2009 varshon, which is set to be the album's first single, sounds like a vintage cut of Dando's own, all rolling drums, sunny strums and winding melody, thinly veiling the bitterness of the lyrics ("We could have done a lot/We certainly did not/So I'll try to do the things I did before..."), and sets up the album's relaxed feel from the off.
Next up is a hushed take on one of the few reflective moments from Wire's peerless Pink Flag album, 'Fragile'; in the hands of the Lemonheads, the song gets opened up into a lush, though fleeting, country ballad. This, along with his take on Townes Van Zandt's 'Waiting Around to Die', reminiscent of American Recordings-era Johnny Cash, are the album's darkest highlights, and also serve to remind the listener of just how great Dando is at the dark stuff. Meanwhile, the best thing in the classic Lemonheads-style is a dumb take on G.G. Allin's 'Layin' Up With Linda'; another upbeat jangler, it again masks the darkly comic lyrics ("I got pissed and killed her/Now I'm on the run/Living with Linda used to be fun..."), and makes for a bright interlude into a surprisingly sombre record.
Unfortunately, following a couple more tracks in the dusky country vein (most notably, the haunting 'Yesterlove', which features a spiralling acoustic guitar line, and some exotic Indian percussion), Varshons takes a desperate tailspin in its second half, with too many unmemorable meandering tracks from which it never quite recovers. The album's nadir is the ersatz electro experimentation of 'Dirty Robot', which features the vocal 'talents' of one Kate Moss. Yeah. That Kate Moss. There's little more to add on the matter other than that the track is potentially the worst thing ever to bear the Lemonheads name, sounding like nothing more like a bad Client b-side. Fortunately, the album's other big-name collaboration, a faithful version of Leonard Cohen's 'Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye' fares much better; with emotively breathy guest vocals from Liv Tyler, the simple rendition of Cohen's beatific ballad is a late saving grace, and also serves to build up anticipation for the album's most talked-about track, 'Beautiful'.
Yes, Varshons, ends with a cover of a Christina Aguilera track, and y'know what? It's a fucking joy. Dando does nothing fancy with the track, simply layering up the acoustic guitars and letting the song - which, let's face it, has always been great - speak for itself. By the time the track fades to its hazy conclusion - ornamented by a curious Thin Lizzy-style double guitar chime - the mid-album slump is almost forgotten (I say almost - this is a record which features Kate Moss on vocals). It's certainly not perfect, but Dando's voice sounds in fine form, and majority of these tracks are infused with a heart and soul that seems to suggest that he really enjoyed recording them. A worthwhile detour, then, but now it's time for Evan Dando to show the world what he can really do when he tries...
Thursday, 30 April 2009
"The choice I have made may seem strange to you..." Morrissey 'Alma Matters'
In the wake of his recent Years of Refusal album - a commercial success, but one that left this fan cold - Morrissey is reclaiming his past. Smiths tracks, untouched for decades, have made live appearances - though anyone who saw his charmless bludgeoning of 'This Charming Man' on Jonathan Ross may wish they hadn't - and last month, he reissued two of his more 'difficult' and 'underappreciated' efforts for reappraisal.
Following on from 1994's perfect Vauxhall & I, 1995's Southpaw Grammar and 1997's Maladjusted marked the generally-accepted nadir of his solo career, respectively spurning, and embracing, the then-booming Britpop scene; both have their champions, but these reissues (or as Morrissey describes them, 're-presentations') of these albums are allegedly less a money-grabbing venture than an effort to rewrite history. The artwork and tracklists of both have been drastically redesigned; Southpaw, which originally opened with 'The Teachers Are Afraid of the Pupils', a chorusless, Shostakovich-sampling dirge (in which you can practically see Morrissey's shit-eating grin as he intones "To be finished would be relief" into the song's ninth and tenth minutes), now starts with one of its punchiest tracks, while Maladjusted has its lead-off single, the glorious 'Roy's Keen', cruelly excised - while both are given additional tracks, though Morrissey himself has already dismissed one, the lovably goofy 'Fantastic Bird' as "throwaway".
In its original guise, Southpaw Grammar was a scant eight songs long, bookended by two ten-minute epics; the redux clusters these in the middle, certainly a blessing for the impatient listener. Indeed, for all accusations of tampering with history, everything on Southpaw 2.0 arguably works better than the original highlighting instead its goldmine of three-minute gems, including the spry 'Reader Meet Author’. Even the glam-rocking "The Operation", frequently maligned for its two-minute drum intro, sounds positively effervescent here, and although the spiralling 'Southpaw' remains one of his best album closers (especially its cryptic references to "run[ning] back to Ma", which sound suspiciously like running back to Marr, and its 'Bigmouth'-cribbing outro), the choice to end with one of Morrissey's greatest songs, 'Nobody Loves Us' is inspired. Previously - inexplicably - relegated to b-side status, it's a masterful display of guitarist Alain Whyte's unheralded melodic chops, and Moz's wonderful way with words.
Maladjusted has always been a dark horse; often derided as Morrissey on autopilot, it's still home to some of his most affecting ballads (especially the stately 'Trouble Loves Me' and 'Perfect Day'-aping 'Wide to Receive') and, in 'Satan Rejected My Soul' and 'Ammunition', two of his most likeable pop songs. Still, while 'Sorrow Will Come in the End', his unintentionally hilarious riposte to losing a royalties lawsuit to ex-Smiths drummer Mike Joyce ("A man who slits throats has time on his hands, and I'm gonna get you!") has definite curiosity value, the new tracks add nothing to the experience.
Morrissey's obsessive fanbase will relish the chance to argue over these revisions, but the changes will be of little interest to the recently-converted. Likewise, the man's own newly-written sleevenotes are consistently insightful and amusing, but are hardly going to have casual fans reaching for their wallets. Which begs the question: when should an artist relinquish control over his back catalogue?
"...but who asked you anyway? It's my life to ruin my own way." Morrissey 'Alma Matters'
Wednesday, 25 March 2009
It's just sleeping, and consequently needs poking with a stick every now and again. Sorry for not updating since 2008 - I've been stuck in student hell. Not to say there's been nothing to write about, but I've been doing it for other places. This place will continue to get infrequently updated, but in the meantime, do check out some of the other places I speak my branes.
The Singles Jukebox
Returning from internet purgatory, the man, the legend William B. Swygart has resurrected his Singles Jukebox (synopsis: jaded rock hacks write about pop music Round Table-style, enjoy a lot of it) for the good of mankind. Amongst other esteemed journo types (many of whom used to write for the sorely-missed StylusMagazine), my amateurish opinion has already been called on regarding La Roux, Soulja Boy and Miley Cyrus; keep reading if you want to see what else I might enjoy/despise.
The Line of Best Fit
Expect a few reviews of mine to go up here sometime in the next week or so as well. Another
great new webzine,
And now, since I'm here, a few songs:
1990s "The Kids" [taken from Kicks - Rough Trade, 2009]
The new 1990s album Kicks has been one of my favourite records of the year so far; while their last album had pretty much one setting (PAR-TAY!), this one's much more diverse, aided in some part by all three of the band taking turns writing and singing songs. Compared with the album's more visceral moments, "The Kids" is, comparatively, a grower, but once you get it, it sinks in hard. A shoe-in for my end of year list.
Favours for Sailors "I Dreamt That I Dreamt That You Loved Me in Your Dreams" [taken from Furious Sons - Tough Love Records, 2009]
One of the most promising debuts I've heard in ages, Favours For Sailors' first mini-album Furious Sons is a six-song powerpop masterclass. If this isn't a hit by the end of 2010, my faith in music will be lost forever.
McCarthy "Get a Knife Between Your Teeth" [taken from Banking, Violence and the Inner Life Today - Midnight Music, 1990]
I Am a Wallet, McCarthy's debut, remains one of my favourite albums of the 80s - the perfect mix of jangle and polemic. Inexplicably, I never quite gave their last album, Banking, Violence and the Inner Life Today the same attention until recently; it's a lot less one-dimensional than the band's first two efforts, with the first seeds of the Stereolab sound being sown with the introduction of Laetetia Sadler to the band. This was the band's last single, and sees them flirt (not entirely ill-advisedly) with the then-popular baggy sound; something tells me the E was not flowing freely when this was written...
Casiotone for the Painfully Alone "Streets of Philadelphia (w/ Concern)" [taken from Advanced Base Battery Life - Tomlab, 2009]
I think I can understand why this has become one of the most-covered Springsteen songs within the indie community (see also: The Wave Pictures), since it shows off the Boss's sense of drama and tragedy, but also his restraint - rather than put it all out on the line, he hides his feelings behind a drum machine and some icy synths. Since that's pretty much what Casiotone's entire career has been based on, it seems only natural for Owen Ashworth to have tried his hand at this track, and it really does sound like the song he was born to cover.
More frequent updates to follow. Promise.