Its kind of abstract. All these big chords and flowing basslines, suggestive melodies and soothing moods. Its kind of cheesy as well. Kind of French and kind of cool.
Actually, its kind of romantic. Contemplative and relaxed. Chill out music for the easy listening set. Retro-futuristic ambient loungecore disco if you will.
You listen to it and it kicks off memories and thoughts which are then tinged with an escapist abandon. Walk along at night with it on your walkman and youre transported into some kind of cinematic realm. Listen to it in the office and its like youre taking a holiday. Take it intravenously and your blood pressure sinks and your heart rate drops.
Of course the whole idea is that its come-down music for the dance faction but its too good for that. Its textures are built from old moogs and synths and its constructed in a live context (i.e not with computers and sequencers) giving it simplicity and unity. It moves through distinct stages yet the edges are blurred. It changes moods but in slow-mo.
Talisman is the replacement soundtrack for 2001, Sexy Boy is the cheeky antidote to all thats wrong with the dance / rock disease, Ce Matin La is the morning after your first night together (but with trumpets) and New Star in the Sky is the second night.
It all adds up to the first great album of 98. An album which will soundtrack all the good bits to your year and let you forget the rest of it. An album which, when you play it, will make you feel like a deep and good willed human being. Escapism in the best possible sense.
Laurie Bennett & The Models
Amazing to think that, at 24 years old, Quarantahiti is Lauries fourth full-length release. The beautifully sparse, yet full feeling, sound on this record is as credit to his own production skills as the songs are to his writing skills. With the combination of the two, what you get is a bizarre but wonderful dreamworld of songs and sounds that harks back to the frazzled side of the sixties yet somehow remains rooted in the world of today - well, Lauries version of it at least.
The one downfall of this record is that, good though it is, it really doesnt push as far as some of his past efforts. This new trip occasionally relies on writing songs that are clever and cleverly realised as opposed to writing songs that are truly different and therefore clever by default. The net effect of this is, at times, to leave a distasteful impression of whimsy lingering in the back of the mind. On the other hand, the coup de grace of the whole affair is the wilful inclusion of melodies and sounds that maybe shouldnt fit (yet somehow do) in place of what you might think should be there. This results in the total fizzing fuzzy delight of songs like Letter and the lunatic pop scramble of Socks. As ever, tenderness is in evidence in the form of the deliriously shadowy Mayonnaise Maisonette, offset by the trash pop sprinting title track. The originality doubt crawls back into the mind with the evidence of songs like Hooray For Today which, despite being born of a beautiful twinkling warmness, is just too Wilson-esque for its own good.
Ultimately, as yet another different, yet still coherent, window into the rambling genius musical world of Laurie Bennett this succeeds. The complaints are mostly just from rigorously applying the mans own past standards - and a wave to say were waiting for him to once again outgrow his influences and start leaving reference points behind.
Dreem Teem In Session Vol. II
The second mix tape by the Dreem Teem is yet another contribution to the current avalanche of Speed Garage compilations released in the last six months. This hybrid of soulful garage and the elements of jungle that drum n bass has thrown away (booming basslines, ragga toasts, time-stretched vocals...) has undoubtedly dominated the London scene in the latter part of the nine seven. The infectious b-lines and +8 mixes have certainly given a vibrant edge to a genre that has always passed me by. These innovations are not welcomed by all purists however; a number of influential U.S. producers were horrified at the idea of pitching up vocals and at the recent spate of garage remixes which are simply chart pop anthems with an Armand van Helden bassline tagged on at the last minute.
This tape (while including both A London Thing and the ubiquitous Rip Groove) tends to steer clear of chart anthems and commercial remixes; attempting to capture the underground sound of the London Sunday Scene. To this end, the tunes are less in your face; the boundaries of speed and traditional garage are more subtle than they appear on some recent cash-in compilations. A few underground cuts and an exclusive remix by RIP are certainly appealing but, for the uninitiated, it is hard to recommend this album above some of its numerous peers. Tuff Jams Underground Frequencies (the first mix-album to bring this sound to the attention of the nation) still leads the field in terms of both mixing and striking the ideal balance of soulfulness and exuberance. Despite not being the cream, Dreem Teem should sit happily in the collection of those already initiated into (and not yet sick of) the medias latest craze.
The Best Of Wham!
Come back, come back with me... its 1986 and were in Amersham (in the home counties, dont you know!) Oh look! Theres a strangely attractive young school boy (Oh! Thatll be me! Bless) bedecked in school shorts and a scraggily school tie, kipper end tucked away, leaving the rebellious snake tie look. Its Thursday and our hero is sprawled across the lounge floor, enthralled by top jock, Mike Smith. Yes! Its TOTP night! Alas all is far from well in the Wayth household, as young Jonny has just witnessed the end of an era. George Poppodopalus and the other one have just taken him to the Edge of Heaven and then... nothing. Nothing but emptiness.
This is when I first became conscious of death. Admittedly, my parents were both killed in a horrific accident only weeks before, but this was different. Oh so different! Where were those highlighted perms, those cheeky grins and rolled up jeans? I refused to believe they were gone. I could not let it go. Fortunately, I was not alone, as the cultural meccas that are eighties discos continued to preach Poppadopalus word throughout the land. Whamz not dead, the masses proclaimed.
But what became of our heroes? Well, young Jonny (not so little now!) still insists on wearing schoolboy shorts and has a fetish for Mike Smith. George Poppodopalus is currently working in a bab van along the Edgware Road. (I dont want no chillis. I dont want no onion. Yeah! Yeah!) The other one, following a brief spell as dictator of a small African nation, has launched his own brand of chewing gum, Ridgeley Spearmint.
The High Llamas
Cold and Bouncy
V2 / Alapaca
The High Llamas are one of those bands with few compatriots. This is not to say the reference points arent there - the Beach Boys circa Pet Sounds, for example, as well as a few more contemporary comparisons. They seem happy, however, to drift along in their own way, as much of Cold And Bouncy demonstrates.The tunes are luscious as usual, delicate string arrangements, hazy guitars and even the odd marimba. Sean OHagans voice is precious, honest and sadly optimistic - with lines like Disappointment lies in store, as disappointments go its pestering/its on the floor for how long, heaven knows. As Brian Wilson discovered, despair sounds so much more poignant with gentle accompaniment, especially strings.
In terms of progression, The Llamas seem fated never to escape the whistful pop blueprint laid down in earlier releases (Gideon Gaye and Hawaii) although continuing work with Stereolab has led to more dots and loops of their own. There is even an element of Tortoisey experimentation here, especially on instrumentals like Evergreen Vampo and Three Point Scrabble. However, you cant keep a good tune down and occasionally the sonic doddling seems unnecessary. Most bands cant even manage one affecting melody - when you have an entire album of them it seems somehow wrong to obscure them with Kraftwerk-esque bleeps.
Having said that, Cold and Bouncy is a very good album; clever and emotive but also humble and heartfelt. It makes you sad that they dont reach a wider audience: Mines a bright and cool affair/simple gestures get you there. The High Llamas, then: for the depressed optimist in everyone.
This year the Throwing Muses decided to call it quits. In the end their records werent making enough money to keep them going and so they packed it in. Considering they were one of the most inspiring, original and brilliant bands of our time this is pretty shameful on the part of the record-buying public.
But, anyway, we are left with Kristen Hershs second solo effort. The follow up to the very succesful Hips and Makers. As with that album its a collection of acoustic tracks padded out with a cello and a piano in places. Its sparse and sometimes austere. Its comforting in places, but unsettling in more.
Kristen Hersh has always made beautiful but harrowing music and this is no exception. For every sweet melody there is a twisted lyric, for every romantic notion their is a pragmatic doubt. She writes using brutal and bleak imagery yet conjures up beauty and hope. Like Hips and Makers, the themes are those universal old chestnuts of love, commitment and people fucking other people up. What makes her treatment of them so compelling is the twists and turns of her lyrics and the way that she can reflect these emotions with just an acoustic guitar.
There is nothing quite so obvious as Your Ghost to grab onto but tracks like Aching For You and the superb Hope jump out and scare you shitless. The album shifts from the quiet reflective passages into tense, powerful tracts seamlessly and the few instruments are used creatively enough to make the fifteen tracks seem at least five tracks too short.
If the death of the Throwing Muses means we get more albums like this then its some sort of consolation, but in a perfect world wed get both. Oh, and The Seahorses shamed into never committing anything onto record ever again.
Low Speak Records
Im not particularly musical and cant be sure, but I have a feeling that the guitar chord which opens this, the debut album from Colour Noise, is the same which begins Radioheads O.K. Computer. Sadly, the comparison must go no further, for, let me make this clear immediately, Exposed stinks so badly that Im waiting for the neighbours to complain about the smell. Apparently, Colour Noise are positioned as post-grunge. One can only assume that this means conventionally rehashing the genre when everyone else has moved on, without any of the original angry energy. The lead singer, Gena Dry, has been quoted as saying that If youre a woman today there are some things that piss you off, casting this exercise in feminist terms. Unfortunately, Exposed expresses 90s female angst with about as much profundity as Meredith Brooks. Tracks like Paint My Face attempt pertinent social comment and fail miserably due to facile lyrics and endless alternative rock clichés.
Although the opener One Day passes by pleasantly enough, by the time you realise the tone isnt going to progress from here on it begins to get distinctly dull. There is an attempt, by track seven, entitled Child In Me, to break down the stylistic homogeneity with a half-arsed foray into dance/rock synergy. It is rather symptomatic of the album that this nod towards the future sounds rather like EMF did about seven years ago. Imagine my disappointment upon discovering that a song entitled Gun is not, in fact, an ode to an old Scottish rock band of the same name, but about how Gena wants ... to put a gun to your head, and ... blow you away. It really would be a shame to go to all this trouble in the name of punishment: all Gena really need do is make this person listen to her new album. By the way, if somebody wants the CD its going for £2. Or 50 pence? Anyone?
Wall Of Sound
The Propellerheads duo have had a pretty good year all in all. Not only have they had a handful of hits and established an outstanding live show but they have coped with the pressure of being heralded the next big thing since the back end of 1996. Sticking to their guns and with Wall of Sound, the Propellerheads have created a unique niche for themselves mashing together deck scratching tomfoolery, tongue in cheek samples, live breakbeats, Hammond organs and slap bass.
All the Propellerheads greatest hits to date are here wearing their 007 influences very heavily. But hell, whose complaining? Will White, the human beatbox, starts off Spybreak! before the charismatic Alex Gifford grinds his bass and dreams of gadgets and ejector seats. The On Her Majestys Service collaboration with David Arnold is also featured in its nine-minute orchestral fury. To calm our nerves Shirley Bassey lets rip with the sultry growl of History Repeating which is more swinging and lounge music than the single. Aside from the James Bond fetish Decksanddrumsand-rockandroll has much more to offer. Former B-side and future single Velvet Pants is a jaded, jazzy pastiche of the life of a female ligger whereas Echo And Bounce is all bouncy beats and twisted analogue synths. The fastest track is the live favourite Bang On thrusting together 303s, thrashing guitars and Charlie and Chocolate Factory samples; Banks and Banks of humming machinery. Ive never seen so many knobs. The remainder of the album is less memorable with tracks such as Better? and Oh Yeah? only kept alive by witty samples. One may even be tempted to suggest that these are indeed fillers. However tracks such as Warning Style and Comingetcha have deeper qualities which, although overshadowed by the big beats and kitschness, are perfect little funky groovers.
All in all Decksandrumsandrockandroll demonstrates that the Propellerheads have got some nifty little moves up their sleeves and pinpoint accuracy when it comes to shooting a crowd pleaser.
Bleed Your Cedar
At last Radioactive have finally seen fit to give a UK release to this album, which I picked up abroad nearly a year ago, and which I have been raving about to all and sundry ever since. For now you too can have the pleasure of listening to one of the sexiest records ever. Sure, thats a quality thats been attributed to a huge number of bands and albums recently, but Elysian Fields are sexy in a way that no-one else has managed to be for years. Singer Jennifer Charles is blessed with the horniest torch-singer voice since Rita Hayworth mimed Blame It On Mame in Gilda, and thats the kind of sexy Im talking about; Golden - Age - of - Hollywood - leading - lady sexy, the kind of sexy that existed before sex became something more gynaecological than sensual.
Musically, theyre heavily jazz and blues influenced, with a touch of Velvet Underground chucked in there for good measure. Theyve invited comparisons with Mazzy Star, but Charles vocals have a lot more personality than the oft-bored Hope Sandoval, and the music is darker, more disturbing. The lyrics are all tales of the dark side of sexuality; Lady In The Lake dealing with a drowned lover, Jack In The Box with a sex slave kept locked in a box under the bed. The seven-minute Fountains On Fire is easily the best soundtrack music David Lynch never used, all tinkly twilight-zone piano and crashing chords, while the all-too-short Sugarplum Arches is my favourite song on the album, mainly due to the way Charles half-whispers the line Let me be your salt lake... / Let me be your salt sap wet lap dream, which Im ashamed to say really does send shivers down my spine every time I hear it.
If this had been released earlier, it would have been my album of 97 without a doubt. Buy it.
The Space Between Us
Virgin / Melankolic
Get out your aromatherapy candles and assume a yogic position - this album is nothing if not thoroughly relaxing. I first played this CD whilst at the peak of a three-essays-overdue-and-there's-no-more-coffee crisis, by the end of the first track my nerves were no longer buzzing and , with my spirit in a higher plane of relaxation, I was at peace with my workload and had embraced it as a developmental and soul enhancing experience.
OK, so maybe not quite - but I was somewhat calmer. "Weather Storm" (track 1) has a deliberating pulse-like beat, the sort designed to slow your heart rate. Good therapy for the overworked. Most of the tracks on this album are the sort of Piano/String orchestral overlay on synthesised stuff that would be housed nicely alongside those "mood" albums that are always advertised with sunsets and silhouetted animals. Un peu Jean-Michel Jarre, n'est-ce pas? Yet somehow the album as a whole has a sort of energy, the tone is dark and throbbing, yet not melancholy or boring as so much of this type of thing can be.
One of the tracks is the Balcony Scene music from Romeo+Juliet and contains elements of the beautiful "Kissing You" by Des'Ree, also from the film. And that's what's been getting to me about this album - ALL the tracks sound like they've been written specifically for film soundtracks; very emotional and a bit "Twin Peaks". There are only two pieces with any vocals on them, "featuring" Elizabeth Fraser and Paul Buchanan - I've never heard of them, but then I'd never heard of Craig Armstrong before either, and with no other available information about him or his album, he remains as enigmatic as his bizarrely titled tracks.
According to the typically fawning press release that accompanied this CD, Robert Miles first album, Dreamland, took a mere 12 weeks to complete, whereas 23am, his second, took a whole eight months. That represents over 90% of a year entirely wasted. This might seem a little harsh; the album is well constructed, well produced, and a little more experimental that most of his own back catalogue and much of Deconstructions recent output. But think about it: the French like him. They export fantastic nouveau house from the likes of Air, Daft Punk and Motorbass, and all they get in return is a dressed-up Jean-Michel Jarre album (or worse, Enigma). Suckers. Robert may be on a different tip this time - the digital age is dead, replaced by lots of live instrumentation and swirly analogue keyboards with exotic names like Juno and Jupiter - but the end result is little more than well-marketed, over-produced supermarket Muzak. Theres even some a squealing guitar solo on Heatwave and brass on Maresias (Yes, thats right. Brass. For fucks sake), both anonymous forays into jungle for people who dont like jungle. Its all suitably mystical and atmospheric thanks to this investment in retro technology, but the album sounds like the demos that occupy potential keyboard buyers in Dixons; 23am could have been made by an anonymous Japanese worker-drone in Osaka. Supposedly a spiritual and metaphorical journey, Robert lacks the vocabulary and a sufficiently evolved grammar to express himself: next time, just send a postcard.
Strip away the layers of a truly great band or musician and, instead of reducing their music, it becomes more complex. Strip away 23am and youre left with nothing, an empty silence. The rest is packaging.
8 Frozen Modules
The Confused Electrician
Some albums make you think about the fine line. The fine line is where something daringly good stares something horrifyingly bad straight in the face. Its where what is progressive runs the eternal risk of actually being prog. Its where Can look over and realise they could have been Yes. And this fine line is also a fence - a fence where The Confused Electrician is acquiring a sore arse.
This album has all the right ideas: it anchors vast sound textures with low-end beats, and as with a lot of music working on that principle, it uses the dub thing of the studio as a cavernous space where noises emerge from and retreat back into dark corners. So far so good. A mixture of ambient, digi-dub, guitar experimentation, and programmed breaks seems like a promisingly open field for anyone in possession of the technology. But even in open country you can find dead ends and beaten tracks. This is the problem facing Ken Gibson, the man who has inexplicably chosen to call himself Eight Frozen Modules for the purposes of this album. All credit to the man for the Tubby-esque rolling snares on the best track, Under The Palace, which slowly builds up a beautiful, austere soundworld out of some carefully chosen elements, but in general the album lacks the objectively critical eye of a producer who could have swept out some of the dodgy synth sounds and the occasional lapses in originality in the drum programming. Tracks like the wrongly named The New Sensitivity do interesting things with pauses and then ruin it with weak fills and uninspiring loops. Short Dub has all the melody of something Adrian Sherwood would throw away, and Premature Wig is only worth mentioning for the title. Theres the ghost of a bravely original, dark, wintery album here, but it ends up back on the fine line, teetering between A Guy Called Gerald and David Bowie.
Spread It All Around
Punk is for teenagers. This is not meant to be condescending - all you Castle Donnington and safety pin types out there, dont take offence. It is just that as a musical genre it seems custom-built for aggressive adolescents. You can play air-guitar to it and feel deep whilst listening to the self-referential, angst-ridden lyrics. Put plainly, Foil rock like a dog. A small poodle perhaps but still a dog.
After a string of forgettable tunes at the start of Spread It All Around, the band hits a purple patch. Soup and Are You Enemy are harmony-laden sprints in the us-versus-the-world mould. Great, except that a whole album of ranting misanthropy is difficult to stomach. Control Freak offers some variation with its Arab Strap-esque spoken vocals. A Place to Hide is another exception to the rule - its reflective vibe suggesting an alternative dimension to their music. In some ways, this shift is reminiscent of the oft-underrated Compulsion (currently residing in the where-are-they-now file) who alternate between thrash and Ry Cooder atmospherics. Even if it is only a token gesture, included to convince people that they have a more sensitive side, it almost manages to counterbalance the crunching guitars elsewhere.
Spread It All Around, however, reminds me of those best-forgotten bands formed in school which substitute distortion for meaning. All those who have been in one will know what I am talking about. As Nigel Tufnell says in This Is Spinal Tap, there is a fine line between stupid and clever. Wise words indeed and Foil fall into the first category too many times.
The Saw Doctors
Sing a Powerful Song
Sham Town Records
This album is a "17 track retrospective" of the Saw Doctors - this means all their finest moments carefully selected and compiled for the delectation of the public. It is described as "a heady mix of rock meets folk meets power pop Tuam Style (what?) blending the poignant with the boisterous". Thus spake their record company, Perhaps it could be more truthfully called "a monotonous mix of Levellers meets Phil Collins meets Sting, influenced by second-rate barn dance crooners, blending the clichéd with the painful."
This is the stuff that Theme pubs are made of ; I'm sure it would sound so much sweeter after 15 pints of Guinness. Some of the songs are worth standing on the table and drunkenly shouting to ( in fact, this is probably how a few of them were composed ), others are so sickeningly syrupy that you almost tug at your own heartstrings in sympathy.
Middle aged Celtic dreamers may be quite enamoured with this album, unfortunately I can't stomach it. I'm sure it fits a nice green, shamrock-shaped gap in the music market, after all, two of the songs were Irish number ones. But as a reviewer in the Times said "They deserve to be savoured on their own terms, unhindered by the ifs and buts of fashion, timing or taste." Savour them if you will, but remember - Fashion? Taste? They don't even appear to have given the Saw Doctors the time of day. I don't think I will either.
This is probably the least listener friendly disc Jim ORourke has released. Its not the best introduction to his music for a disinterested listener (Bad Timing or any of the Gastr Del Sol collaborations with David Grubbs would serve the purpose better) but taken on its own terms, Happy Days is a fucking blast. As in Minimalist music, the idea is that instead of a tune going from A to B, you imagine all the different ways A might sound if you said it for a long time, picking up all the different frequencies and overtones. If you listen to a sound long enough, you start to hear things that arent there, or which exist right at the edge of hearing. Also, like the composer Morton Feldman, there is the idea of getting away from simple beginning and ending, removing the attack and form of a sound to concentrate on the tone. Jim ORourke is interested in the social value of sound, too: why do we put the guitar on a pedestal as the ultimate tool of human expression? You could discuss the ideas behind this piece for hours, but for me the best thing about it is that it wont just annoy my parents, but all of my friends too. Here is a diary of one listen to this 47 minute piece:
00:14 Two note guitar phrase begins.
03:41 First chord.
04:13 Hurdy-gurdies appear.
04:58 slight tune effect.
06:29 hurdy-gurdies getting more sinister.
08:31 guitar plays a nice little tune. Hurdy-gurdies get nastier.
10:15 tune over.
12:45 guitar inaudible. Gradual bagpipe effect.
19:50 hearing telephones that arent there.
20:00 intensifying drone.
25:05 intensifying drone.
33:10 intensifying drone.
39:35 intensifying drone.
41:50 intensifying drone.
42:16 intensifying drone.
42:35 intensifying drone.
43:50 drone calming down.
44:44 guitar audible again. Drone fading.