Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Adult Contemporary Essentials 27.12.09

Julian Casablancas
Rough Trade
It is hard to deny that The Strokes were one of the bands that defined the sound of the noughts, and part of that definition, alongside Albert Hammond Jnr's guitar, was the voice of Julian Casablancas. In his first solo departure, that voice remains the constant, but the musical palette grows to include 80s synths (think Human League), 70s prog and some Strokes-like tunes (and a strange country departure). At only 8
songs, this is a short album, full of what must have seemed like guilty pleasures within the band framework. Among those 8 songs, there are two absolute crackers in opener Out Of The Blue, and Glass. Had the rest of the album emerged fully fledged from a new artist, this would have been hailed as a remarkably diverse and excellent set, but it is impossible not to judge it with a Strokes mindset. Phrazes For The Young would attract a different audience than The Strokes, and it is to its credit that it would be attractive to that audience.
ACE rating 9/10

Grant-Lee Phillips
Yep Roc
Grant-Lee Phillips has been the same kind of stalwart of adult alternative US music as now-label-mates Nick Lowe, Robyn Hitchcock and John Doe - turning out wonderful records without ever setting the world on fire. Little Moon sees him become a clearly happy father, moving him away from previously more brooding material. His rich baritone voice can still soar - on songs like Good Morning Happiness (a song that could so easily have tipped into schmaltz) and It Ain't The Same Old Cold War Harry, the bouncy horns compliment the mood perfectly. Elsewhere the optimism does provide a strong uplift, and the music is at the more Wallflowers end of the Grant-Lee Phillips spectrum. Little Moon is a strong addition to the canon, and as good an entry point as any. There will be many who will fall deeply in love with Grant-Lee Phillips on the strength of albums just like this one.

ACE rating 8/10

Various Artists
Never Give Up On Your Hallucinations
Alive/ Redeye
Alive Records is one of the coolest labels on the planet, and its artists, including The Black Keys, Outrageous Cherry and Buffalo Killers, keep the sludgy dirty rock feel of early 70s hard rock, add a dash of blues and then stop caring exactly what you think and just make a noise. That vibe is illustrated perfectly on this sampler album by a band like Radio Moscow who take the blues standard I Just Want To Make Love To You and turn it into some kind of hip hop rock/ Santana fest that would make a dead man dance. Elsewhere, Brimstone Howl, Black Diamond Heavies, Trainwreck Riders, Left Lane Cruiser and The Black Keys add tracks that suggest that Alive may never make a big pile of money, but someone is going to have an awful lot of fun (and Jack Daniels) along the way. Not a trace of subtlety or an ounce of reserve in this excellent album.

ACE rating 8/10

Monday, 21 December 2009

2009 in Music

If there is one thing that music criticism teaches, it is that listening to 300 albums a year is only to scratch the surface of what is out there. Every year gets better, and the talent deeper, so any suggestion that this list is the ‘best’ of 2009 would be an overclaim – it is simply a list of the albums that kept coming back to the top of this reviewer’s playlist, improving with each listen. In no particular order, then...

Manchester Orchestra
Mean Everything To Nothing
Insanely great. When critics talk about ‘a band to watch’ and ‘a band laden with promise’, this right here is the album they always hoped would come out. A band who could make a 60-year old classical music fan headbang and mosh, while keeping the kind of sophistication that comes from writing songs that work wonderfully when acoustic (a la Dave Grohl). If there is competition for Manchester Orchestra, it might be the Foo Fighters (maybe, at a stretch, Biffy Clyro), although that would underplay the honesty Andy Hull is capable of in his lyrics. Manchester Orchestra are the best new rock band to leave America in 10 years.

Monsters of Folk
Monsters of Folk
Rough Trade
In what could easily have been another Traveling Wilburys-like release, Monsters of Folk, a collection of Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Mike Mogis and M Ward (and on the tour, Will Johnson of Centro-matic) banded together to not be a supergroup. The seriousness which can occasionally be pervasive in their individual releases is largely absent here – they seem to be having some loose limbed fun. Some games have been upped, though – Oberst sounds right up for this one, with focus and drive that he has missed a little recently.

Rodrigo Y Gabriela
Rodrigo y Gabriela have become cult favourites for their intriguing blend of classical and flamenco guitar with a rock sensibility. Way more than polite dinner party music, the passion, grace and fire of their interplay is always entertaining. That palette has been expanded on 11:11, with leanings towards Al Di Meola-like jazz, the inclusion of rock guitarist Alex Skolnick, and another duo in Strunz and Farah. It is a wonderful addition, elevating the album from more-of-the-same (no matter how great) to ‘wow’. This album has dynamics, it has soul, it has rock and jazz, and it catches some of the heat of their live work perfectly .

She Keeps Bees
With a cast iron edge to the guitar, and a voice like Cat Power's Chan Marshall sung by Janis Joplin and a Patti Smith attitude, Jessica Larrabee leads this two piece wonderfully. The songs come across like thicker, edgier, bluesier White Stripes songs - deliciously sexy, confessional, naked and edgy. When Jennifer Trynin released her amazing debut album back in the 90s, it sounded just like this - all stunning power, control and sparse instrumentation. It is hard to avoid the Cat Power comparisons, but Nests stands those comparisons well by coming out on top.

These United States
Everything Touches Everything
United Interests
These United States are probably the best band in the US that you’ve not started to listen to yet. Combining Big Pink-era Band style with Shins-y rock and a Rolling Stones funky vibe, Jesse Elliot and band offer up complexity, humour and a driven wit that proceeds past the listener like great rolling countryside past a high speed train. Elliot is a lyricist like few others – capable of pure poetry in his lyrics without overweaning English Lit references, he tells stories elegantly and maturely. Everything Touches Everything rocks up the sound a little, ending up around Jayhawks/ Deadstring Brothers space. It is a great sound, relaxed, but with urgency – the kind of music that Conor Oberst has headed towards but not quite landed the past few years.

Low Anthem
Oh My God Charlie Darwin
Bella Union
It kind of sucks you in to believing it is another Fleet Foxes album, this one, sharing a label with that band, and then throwing in the first two songs, Charlie Darwin, and To Ohio, both lushly, gently sweet. But then, Ticket Taker sounds like Tom Waits took over Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions Band, as the (essentially 3-piece) band take a rowdier stomp into a bar for a couple of songs. A brave second disc, full of the kind of songs that the band wanted to make, rather than written to a formula. The Felice Brothers, Bon Iver or Fleet Foxes have not provided as wholesome an album as this so far.

Dinosaur Jr
Goodness knows how someone can do what Jay Mascis does in Dinosaur Jr for so long and stay so fresh. Starting with songs that Nirvana would have been happy with, then layering over insanely great fuzzed up lead guitar in a kind of Zappa-esque frenzy, it shouldn’t work as anything other than an ego-fest, but it does, wonderfully. Farm is a fantastically resolved album, better than pretty much any of the 8 preceding. Farm is tight, urgent and remarkably whole. If everyone who likes the way Neil Young does what he does when he rocks out would only give this one listen, they’d be converted.

Dan Auerbach
Keep It Hid
Dan Auerbach is known as half of The Black Keys – the singer/ guitarist half. Keep It Hid is a significantly looser affair than any of the previous albums, with country, jazzy blues and psychedelia working their way in. Recording at home has given this album a more organic sound – Keep It Hid takes its own time, and is absolutely never rushed. Auerbach is a better guitarist than he was allowed to be in the Black Keys format, and Keep It Hid, in opposition to its title, brings that to light.

Clem Snide
Hungry Bird
There is something so addictive about simple music when it is done so perfectly. When Clem Snide are on form, and oh, they are here, the music they make is soul food. Touchingly tender, wry, witty and ironic – poetry so carefully and cleverly observed and stories delivered with the gentlest of musical touches. The songs are a grown-up’s treat – like an uber-Snow Patrol before they made it big. A song like Beard of Bees is told as much as it is sung, Barzelay’s weary vocals providing the wry edge that tip it into beauty. With amazing mastery of melody, the 12 songs become like personal friends. As indie-rock bands go, there are few that do a better job for anyone over the age of 30 than Clem Snide.

All My Friends Are Funeral Singers
Dead Oceans
Full of subtlety, layered acoustic perfection, it is as if Beck had suddenly both rediscovered his musical genius and mixed it with Elbow’s more anthemic moments. Having spent 20 minutes pressing ‘repeat’ on Krill, you may well go back to Radiohead-like opener Giving Away The Bride, or the acoustic-Nirvana-like Polish Girls. All My Friends is the band’s sixth ‘song-based’ album, and it is, by some margin their best – topping even the underrated Roots and Crowns. It has more songs, more individual songs that could be taken out of the album and still work as single gems. It may seem overblown to describe an album as ‘art’ these days, but this is an album where time only deepens the nuances and the attractiveness.

Them Crooked Vultures
Them Crooked Vultures
Them Crooked Vultures is the latest supergroup to involve Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) and Dave Grohl (of, well, everything…), and rather remarkably adds in the Led Zeppelin quiet man, John Paul Jones. An album that rather neatly updates the Cream idea, riff heavy, and full of the bluesy thick rock that would make any fan of Clapton’s supergroup shed a tear of reminiscence. The format clearly suits each of the musicians, with the kind of punch we expect from QoTSA enhanced by some Led Zeppelin basslines. There’s nothing modern in any one of these 13 tracks, and that is perhaps the album’s greatest highlight – it presumes that great rock will always be great rock, without any need for frippery.

Molina and Johnson
Molina and Johnson
Secretly Canadian
This collaboration has been a long time in the making, and has been well worth the wait. The two singers complement each other perfectly. Johnson’s grittier voice blending with Molina’s higher plaintive. The album feels like a Will Johnson album with additional beauty, added harmony, elevated poetry, which makes it just about perfect. This album defines what is best about Americana - the openness, the sense of space, relaxed reverie, landscape and travel. When Johnson says ‘our record was made in the late February sun’, that feels just so right.

Friday, 18 December 2009

2010's biggest new artist

Love the first video from Medical Records' Karl Phillips and the Midnight Ramblers.

(Parental Advisory and sensitive type advisory lyrics.)

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Adult Contemporary Essentials 13.12.09

Divide & Conquer
Death By Polka
You’ll like the voice of Vandaveer. It is a burnished mahogany thing, warm to the touch and comforting – aged like the finest whisky, but with a youthful tone. Vandaveer is Kentucky singer-songwriter Mark Charles Heidinger, the son of (to quote his bio) a preacher whose father was a gambler whose father was both judge and US congressman. Those fathers are important to the band name – Vandaveer was the name inscribed on a pocket watch handed down the generations. Vandaveer’s first, Grace and Speed, was full of songs that seemed instantly familiar. Divide and Conquer is a better album – genuinely affecting timeless folk-y indie. Think Johnny Cash’s later American series, run through a young wood filter, or think about this being the best thing that Ryan Adams has done these past 10 years. The songs manage the same trick of seeming like old friends on first listen – essentially simple, but actually tastefully crafted from the finest ingredients. The voice is augmented by incredibly powerful male-female duets with Rose Guerin, which adds a lovely tone to this lovely album.
ACE rating 9/10

Grand Theft Bus
Made Upwards
Forward Music Group
Seems everywhere you look now, there is an outstanding band. Grand Theft Bus, who hail from Canada, are like a non-pretentious Shins, a modern Steely Dan – the music is intelligent, and so naturally laid back that it draws you in for a closer listen. Automatic is a hypnotic piece, with a wonderful melody, and some elegantly great musicianship. Grand Theft Bus have been described as a jam band for indie fans – there is something to that. The band aren’t all about attitude, and posing. Instead, the music seems to flow, take its own directions and a somewhat natural course. Winning awards in Canada is one thing, but this isn’t distinctly Canadian music. Any fan of Minus The Bear, Hey Mercedes or even The Police would find a lot to like in this third album. It improves on its predecessors by focusing in on the songs a lot more, tightening up the ideas and nailing the dynamics perfectly. Lovely.

ACE rating 8/10

White Rabbits
It’s Frightening
White Rabbits are a Brooklyn-based band (Bushwick, New York City), and they play a new, not-easy-to-pigeonhole indie music that draws from bands like Cold War Kids, The Walkmen, The Strokes, maybe even Spoon. This is a band that revels in its rhythmic sense (two drummers...), spiky sound and a great collective noise. All of that comes into the opener, Percussion Gun, which is one of 2009’s great singles. This is a band whose music is as addictive as nicotine - it's fun, melodic, a little anarchic. They're The Walkmen with a sense of humour. On the release of its predecessor, Fort Nightly, it was written that there was every chance that its successor would be outstanding. ‘Outstanding’ may be a step too far, but Its Frightening stands out in many places. Get that lead single for all the evidence you need.

ACE rating 8/10

Adult Contemporary Essentials rating
9-10 Essential purchase
7-8 Good, definite buy if you've liked this artist in the past
5-6 OK only, don't say I didn't warn you
3-4 Poor, even for this artist
1-2 Awful

Friday, 11 December 2009

Vandaveer redux

Had the huge pleasure to catch Vandaveer's set at Union Hall in Brooklyn on Wednesday. Seriously, anyone who used to look to Ryan Adams for the good stuff should start listening in to Mark Charles Heidinger. Alongside the phenomenal Rose Guerin, the music was wholly transcendent.

No apologies for reposting a couple of videos from the session he did for us, and a great opportunity to highlight the video from the latest album (which I believe is to get a proper UK release in March, on Seasick Steve's label...).

Adult Contemporary Essentials 06.12.09

Steve Morse Band
Out Standing In Their Field
Steve Morse is widely regarded by other guitarists as the best of the rock guitarists, and for many years won the Guitar Player magazine award. Not as flash as the Satrianis and Vais, although he can do that, Morse plays with taste, and a passion for baroque music – he can do classical as happily as rock, country as happily as jazz. It is that variety that makes an instrumental album not induce yawns after 5 minutes, and hopefully have an appeal beyond
other guitarists. Morse’s career includes work with Deep Purple now, as well as several albums with the Dixie Dregs and the Steve Morse Band. With an immense support from bass player Dave LaRue and drummer Van Romaine, this is a tight, perfect collaboration. It will never appeal to a Lady Gaga fan, but to any aficionado of the guitar, it is hard to match. Morse refrains from singing, which is a real plus in his peer group, and the songs are wholly original, raining down Zeppelin grooves and bluegrass along with a lovely Baroque N Dreams (he does seem to love poor to medium puns). If you know a guitar player, this would be a perfect Christmas present.

ACE rating 8/10

Built To Spill
There Is No Enemy
Built To Spill are perhaps the best US band you haven’t heard of. If you took Band of Horses and rocked them up with hypnotically excellent lead guitar and propulsive drumming, you’d be in the right place. In the 1990s, Built To Spill sanitised some of the dirtier indie that was around, and by doing so never achieved the critical acclaim of bands like Pavement. But, their work wonderfully defined how great indie rock could be. Lead man Doug Martsch apparently lived in the studio to make this record, and it is a fantastic addition to their canon. It isn’t the pinnacle of the Built To Spill album collection, but that is no disappointment. The previous album, You In Reverse, had some outstanding moments, but There Is No Enemy is more cohesive – it is more elegant in its attack. Still rangey and jam-like, the guitar is still the predominant instrument, although the lyrics this time around are more direct and open too. If you’re an indie rock fan, you should have a Built To Spill album, and There Is No Enemy is a great place to dive in.

ACE rating 8/10

Bob Dylan
Christmas In The Heart
The kerfuffle that accompanied the release of Dylan’s 47th album focused more on the comedy element of Dylan doing his thing on some Christmas standards. Unfortunately, voice apart (and on most songs, it could easily be an impersonator), there is no other piece of Dylan in here. It might seem a little bah-humbug to criticise an album whose royalties are going to be donated to Feeding America, a charity that does so much at Christmas time. But really, seen as a piece of work, this is a knock-off, a karaoke-standard Christmas song backing track with Bob putting in an hour’s shift in the studio. No more than that. The charity could have benefited so much more had Dylan even attempted to interpret the songs his way, rather than just starting with a Val Doonican-standard backing. That way, Dylan fans might have been able to put aside their reverence and actually enjoy it.

ACE rating 5/10