Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 27.06.10

Avi Buffalo
Avi Buffalo
Sub Pop
The Sub Pop label is some handy shorthand for high expectations from a debut album, and this album does not disappoint. Avi Buffalo is the adopted name of 19-year-old Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg, and the music they make (appropriately for Long Beach, Californians, perhaps) is summery, wistful pop, but the kind that you'd hope The Shins would make if they took some time to just hang out. Fashionably-enough, the music also features the kind of ecstatic mass choruses and hand claps that seem essential all of a sudden. But that doesn't diminish the feel-good factor from what is a throw-back to a 70s Buffalo Springfield reminder, brought bang up to date. No song on the album matches the lead single, What's In It For, but, like Band of Horses, the feel becomes the idea, and all of a sudden you're out the other side, blessed out and hitting repeat.

ACE rating 8/10


The Morning Benders
Big Echo
Rough Trade
The Morning Benders' Talking Through Tin Cans was an epic debut, introducing us to a band whose harmonies were 'the way music used to be' - easy, gently gorgeous. Fortunately, now that they are a big deal, the band have stepped up and produced something significant. Big Echo is the sound of a band properly on its feet.
Opening with the frankly astonishingly great Excuses, a song which must be in contention for single of 2010, the record then goes on to run through 10 could-be singles, and a great bonus track. Clearly, like Delta Spirit, this is a band that finds it hard not to make music (they released a fantastic Bedroom Covers album for free in 2009, running through wonderful cover versions, seemingly for fun). Another band that alludes to the Shins, but here it's to mix them with some later-period Beatles and some Beach Boys. Big Echo is a have-to-have.

ACE rating 9/10


Suzanne Vega
Close-Up Vol 1: Love Songs
Cooking Vinyl
All the way back in 1985 (yup, 25 years ago), Suzanne Vega's honest, poetic debut album shocked many, as a reminder of how remarkable simple, largely acoustic music could be. After a period where Vega has drifted into electronica and rock, Close Up is a return to her back catalogue, with selections re-recorded acoustically. With a more mature voice, songs like Marlene On The Wall, Gypsy, and Small Blue Thing are reflected in their perfect essence. There is a deeply affecting energy shining through each song - the sense that these are old, loved friends. Almost the best way to come at this album would be as a Suzanne Vega novice - discovering these songs fresh would surely put this among the contenders for album of the year.

ACE rating 9/10

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 13.06.10

Tokyo Police Club
Champ
Memphis Industries
Tokyo Police Club's entry couldn't have been more exciting - A Lesson In Crime was an 8-song EP, full of high-energy punchy punky indie, tightly wound around bass, cheesy organ and bursts of spiky guitar. The follow-up, Elephant Shell, was a delight, taking that spit and fire and giving it a more mature grown-up feel without ruining anything. Champ, the second full-length, is more of the same - full of joy and anthemic melody, wholly 2010 in feel. The Canadian 4-piece have here started to breech the 3-minute song barrier, with great results. Standout songs include Breakneck Speed, Wait Up
and End of a Spark, songs that sound like a more indie Fratellis. Champ takes a couple of run-throughs to fully get into - some of the immediacy has gone in growing up, but it has been replaced with genuine quality.

ACE rating 8/10


Delta Spirit
History From Below
Decca
Delta Spirit almost define the can-do spirit of indie music. Their debut album, Ode To Sunshine, is an essential record that has been released and re-released as the band started to gain its audience. And that audience has been gained one fan at a time by taking the show on the road, and blowing people away nightly.
That album should be on every music fan's shelves, sounding like
The Band 40 years later - along with These United States and Centro-matic, this is America's new best new Band. One of the main benefits of that continual live experience is that the follow-up has been honed in front of audiences, and, through a process of evolution, the 11 songs here are genuinely great. Keeping the live studio sound, there is a real sense of space and energy - fortunately the band's range is maintained, rather than simply filling the album with barnstormers - Salt In The Wound is touching, aching. History From Below is another essential album from a band you have to know about.

ACE rating 9/10


Pernice Brothers
Goodbye, Killer
One Little Indian
Once upon a time, Pernice Brothers were able to put together outstanding wit, lyric writing and punchy exciting music. That time was 2001, with the World Won't End. Since then, with 2003's Yours Mine and Ours, 2005's Discover A Lovelier You, and 2006's Live a Little, the highlights have become progressively harder to find. Like Teenage Fanclub, the sound is still there (very like Teenage Fanclub in sound), the lyrics are still there, but my goodness, Joe Pernice's voice has gone. Most of this album sounds like it took him by surprise, and that he's singing a couple of keys above where he feels comfortable. This is a shame, as the songs are back to standard, but there is no way past the voice - while never the band's strongest asset, it was never a hindrance, but with this latest release it has become a distraction. Great set of songs for another band to re-record, though.

ACE rating 6/10

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 30.05.10

Damien Jurado
Saint Bartlett
Secretly Canadian
Damien Jurado is one of those songwriters that all songwriters know and love, but who is all-but-unknown to the public here in the UK.

With an ability to write a genuinely affecting song, and deliver it in a vulnerable, sweet voice, and then do it another 11 times on the same record, his under-recognition is unfair.

On his tenth studio album, Saint Bartlett sees him return to form after the variable Caught In The Trees. Produced by (the excellent in his own right) Richard Swift, Saint Bartlett is a bleaker, quieter more honest affair, which suits him right down to the ground - he is not an arranger, just a very very good storyteller, and there are some wonderful stories here. As a way into Damien Jurado, there are no better places to start.

ACE rating 8/10



Band of Horses
Infinite Arms
Columbia
It is hard to escape the view here that, as so often, Band of Horses gave us their best on their first record, and struggled with the follow-up. Everything All The Time was a stunning debut, with Cease To Begin retreading the same basic formula. Infinite Arms' problems can be traced to the line of the press release that is supposed to make it sound grand: "Produced by Band of Horses with additional production from Phil Ek, mixed by Dave Sardy, and recorded over a 16-month period, the songs on Infinite Arms project the essence of the different locales across America that became the setting for the recording and songwriting process behind the album." For that, read, the band have no musical direction any more and recorded anything that sounded like a song over a 1 year period… Infinite Arms is fine Americana, proving that the band can intrinsically make an ordinary song sound nice. But that is all it is.

ACE rating 5/10


Stornoway
Beachcomber's Windowsill
4AD
No-one can say I didn't try. Having heard so many glowing reviews of this band, it was hard to go in not expecting the saviours of British music. Ultimately, what Beachcomber's Windowsill provides is a nice enough set of songs - folky, poppy, like an upbeat Mumford and Sons. What it does't really provide is any substance to challenge better bands like Frightened Rabbit. There is every chance that your 50 year old uncle is dancing around his Poggenpohl kitchen to Stornoway right now, so nice and middle class does this sound - the beachcomber of the album title may well be there for a nice week in Padstow. At the end of the day, 'nice' shouldn't be a bad word to use in a review, but caution should be exercised for anyone else drawn into the hype - that's pretty much all there is in here.

ACE rating 7/10

Friday, 28 May 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 23.05.10

Phosphorescent
Here's To Taking It Easy
Dead Oceans
Phosphorescent is based around main man Matthew Houck, and on this fifth studio album they enter a rather lovely indie folk space. Emulating Great Lake Swimmers if fronted by Iron and Wine's Sam Beam, this is laid back, harmonic and gentle - music that could have been recorded at any time in the past 40 years.
Houck's voice has a wonderful plaintive quality - strong and vulnerable at the same time. A song like We'll Be Here Soon is gorgeous, laid out like a landscape - any fan of Fleet Foxes would find a lot to love in here. Occasionally the band head into Neil Young/ The Band space (The Mermaid Parade), although it is a reflective Neil Young rather than the rock-heavy one. The band's previous album, Pride (the Willie Nelson covers album aside), was a record that took time to grow but when it did it had its hooks in everywhere. Here's To Taking It Easy is a lovely build on Pride.

ACE rating 8/10


Surfer Blood
Astrocoast
Kanine
Surfer Blood are a band from West Palm Beach, Florida, and follows the new movement in bands that hark back to a 70s sound. Here, they embrace 70s summer pop to produce a sound like Weezer mixed with Girls. The quartet also, in deriving their Weezer references, manage to sound like some Nick Hayward 80s bands. Ultimately, mixing in the trendy Afrobeat (Yeasayer, Vampire Weekend) and eclectic sounds (a bit of dosie-do here, a bit of New Romantic there, produces an uneven record - the kind of record that you'd like to like, but that fails to achieve anything memorable once the last song has gone. The band seem to have hooked into a nice wave of hype, which may do them no favours in the long run, as the music just isn't completely there yet.

ACE rating 7/10


JBM
Not Even In July
JBM
Let’s face it – even the hardest critic of hippy folk would find a lot to like in Fleet Foxes. Well, those same parts make up most of what makes Not Even In July special. Jesse Marchant, an actor turned singer-songwriter, who goes under his initials, sings in a sweet, gentle voice over relaxed lovely melody. A Canadian by birth, Not Even In July was recorded in a church studio, whose atmospherics add a gorgeous ambience to the lazily swelling dynamics and the echoes. Like fellow Canadians Great Lake Swimmers, Marchant’s music has an intimacy that reminds the listener of early Neil Young, Jackson Browne or Rickie Lee Jones. With material covering subjects such as the perfect July On The Sound, written for a dying friend, Marchant is a match for our own Stephen Fretwell – a band is used to fill out the songs without ruining their delicacy and elegance. As a first album, this is an immense small effort.

ACE rating 9/10

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 09.05.10

Broken Social Scene
Forgiveness Rock Record
City Slang
Broken Social Scene are an idea as much as they are a band - a collective band with no single direction and a lot of musicians, Forgiveness Rock Record sees them trim down the number to a more cohesive level, although there is never any doubt that the album is a stitched together affair. Coming at indie from the ecstatic, loosely melodic side, Broken Social Scene do provide the odd goosebump moment in their music, and occasionally a song breaks through the general drift around the various contributors' songs - here it is The Sweetest Kill, and Forced To Love: one, a lovely ballad, the other a very good indie song. It is still hard to recommend BSS to anyone who isn't already in their club. Forgiveness Rock Record is tight relative to their other work, but it is still a collection of ideas.

ACE rating 7/10


The Black Keys
Brothers
Universal
The Black Keys have undergone so much experimentation since breaking through that it was inevitable that they would get to this point. Drummer Patrick Carney's side projects and label suggested a massively interesting musical brain, while guitarist Dan Auerbach's solo work took a sidestep from the thick bluesy funky rock that the pair broke through with.
That wonderful sludgy funk is still apparent on their sixth studio album, Brothers, as it becomes apparent that the soul rock of 70s America feeds the pair a delicious backdrop. Brothers, as a title, is meant to suggest that the pair still feel like a pair, despite their meanderings. What there is a lot less of is blues, although this sounds like the Attack and Release album if it had kept going at its departures from the 'sound'. There is falsetto, Booker T-like organ, Cream-like rock, and a whole lot of soul. The pair have one of the best modern musical legacies in the 5 albums to date, and Brothers proves it is built to last.

ACE rating 9/10


Darwin Deez
Darwin Deez
Lucky Numbers
Proof, if it were needed, that the UK is still prone to giving hype time to bands that manage only to show an interesting look and a hook. The shame here is that frontman, Darwin Deez, does have an interesting voice, and the band is capable of some Vampire Weekend-like spiky rhythms, and the occasional hook (singles Radar Detector and Constellations) that position them as a more electronic Julian Casablancas. The challenge is that there are dozens of great bands or artists in the same space: Kelley Stoltz, Devin Davis, Billy Harvey… (Who? Exactly…) This is a great record, taken in isolation - Deez is a better vocalist than Casablancas, and there is a good loose-limbed energy everywhere; the casiotone synths also seem perfect for what they're doing, the wittiness of the lyrics contributes. The shame would be if this debut were taken for more than what it is - a very interesting first go 'round - and expectations were changed because of that.

ACE rating 7/10

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 02.05.10

Jesca Hoop
Kismet Acoustic EP
Last Laugh
With the really rather special album Hunting My Dress bringing Jesca Hoop fame as this year's best quirky female singer-songwriter, time perhaps seemed right to release an EP of acoustic covers of her own songs, largely drawn from her debut album, Kismet.
Everything's there - the wonderful better-than-Bjork voice, the interesting arrangements… And yet, it is hard to not wonder what's missing, and that thing is the excitement from the Tom Waits-like orchestration that the studio brought to Hunting My Dress. While the EP is lovely, and is a great way to gain additional perspective on the two albums, this is for those who've already fallen in love with those records, not someone who is checking her out.

ACE rating 7/10


Aqualung
Magnetic North
FullFill
Aqualung (well, Matt Hales, who is Aqualung) has done very well since breaking through on the back of a VW advert with Strange and Beautiful. Since then, he has had an occasional track (Easier To Lie, Brighter Than Sunshine) break through and find its way to TC series like Brothers and Sisters or Greys Anatomy. The music is smack-bang in the middle of bands such as Coldplay, Snow Patrol, or Travis, and like those bands, you're really not supposed to find it offensive - if you find it compelling, that's a bonus. Magnetic North continues the tradition on recent Aqualung albums of nice-nice and a track or two that could work on an iPod playlist, or a mixtape CD if you're trying to come across as sensitive. Probably best as singles, unless you really don't like it spicy.

ACE rating 6/10


Jesse Malin and the St Marks Social
Love It To Life
SideOneDummy
Jesse Malin came out from Ryan Adams' wing as a squeakier Bruce Springsteen, forging a more interesting space for himself while Adams went off to forage in country and singer-songwriter territory. Here he follows the wonderful (and under-noticed) Glitter In The Gutter with a more straightahead return to his older wannabe. Love It To Life (the second album of his to be so-titled - the first is a 2007 live album) sounds more like the mid-80s Springsteen knock-offs (like John Cafferty), and ventures no further than the white lines on the same road throughout. Energetic enough, but lacking anything resembling an idea or a change of gear, this is Malin-on-repeat.

ACE rating 7/10

Adult Contemporary Essentials 25.04.10

The Tallest Man On Earth
The Wild Hunt
Dead oceans
Sweden’s Kristian Matsson will endure many many comparisons to Bob Dylan, for his adenoidal impassioned folk (think Blowin' In the Wind era), but the artist whom he should properly be compared to is Steve Forbert, for his voice is closest to that underrated star, and his music more melodic than the protest standards for which Dylan became famous. Like many Swedes writing in English, the actually lyrics have their flaws, but that doesn't stop the headlong rush through word associations sounding right on the money. This is a fantastic follow up to the great debut album, adding in great additional instruments to great effect. If there is a criticism, it is that the pace rarely varies, and that there really isn't much here that couldn't be a straight lift from another musician. Once you're past that, it's all good.

ACE rating 7/10


The New Pornographers
Together
Matador
Once, The New Pornographers were a vital, essential new rock band, full of Neko Case energy and AC Newman drive. Then, as people started to listen, the band (always known as a 'supergroup' simply because it corralled three singers and songwriters) started to sound like the sum of some parts, and more like less than the sum of those parts. Together (perhaps ironically?) allows Case to do Case songs, Newman to do his, and, for some reason allows Dan Bejar to do his. The outcome is that this is both a retread of what worked for them in the past (Your Hands (Together)) and some material that shouldn't have ever been allowed out of the studio (Silver Jenny Dollar, If You Can't See My Mirrors). For a band that has been nothing but disappointing on recent outings, Together provides all the reason needed to stop hoping that they were an aberration.

ACE rating 5/10


Josh Ritter
So Runs The World Away
Pytheas
Josh Ritter's warm, gentle voice and ability to write songs that seem instantly memorable brought him to the attention of many, in that space above folk where the occasional artist achieves success. He makes the kind of music that Ryan Adams occasionally manages, or that Stephen Fretwell drifts into unwillingly. There was a time when he was called The New Springsteen, but So Runs The World Away puts him smack dead centre for The New Paul Simon, with its Still Crazy After All These Years feel. One listen to The Curse will be all you need to make you buy this album - its gently unfolding epic story beautifully told. The fact is that Josh Ritter is now an essential artist, one with a place on the shelf of every adult who likes considerate, intelligent music. This is his best album.

ACE rating 6/10

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 04.04.10

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
The Brutalist Bricks
Matador
For many of us, the only Elvis Costello we're happy with is the 80s punk popster, when tunes met power pop. Ted Leo has been making records for almost 20 years now, steadily improving his craft these past 10 years as Ted Leo and The Pharmacists. He has retained the Frank Turner kind of spit and fire, the angular biting guitars and almost more importantly has started to understand his own territory a lot better, rather than grabbing styles from the library shelves. While capable of some straightahead rockers, it is his explosive fire that is more appealing - like The Posies, but snottier, or The Clash but more tuneful. That is in evidence from the opener, The Mighty Sparrow, and only gets turned up on Mourning In America. The Brutalist Bricks is the best Ted Leo album, and the most Ted Leo of the bunch.

ACE rating 8/10


Cypress Hill
Rise Up
Priority/ EMI
RISE UP is Cypress Hill’s first new album in six years and the first release issued through Priority/EMI, since being signed by Snoop Dogg. Rise Up is the follow-up to 2004’s Till Death Do Us Part, recorded over three years at B-Real’s studio, The Temple, in Los Angeles.
The band's deep grooves and hard riffs are amplified here by guest appearances from Rage Against The Machine/Street Sweeper Social Club guitarist Tom Morello, Linkin Park vocalist Mike Shinoda, System of a Down guitarist/vocalist Daron Malakian, singer-songwriter Marc Anthony, rapper Pitbull and others, including Everlast, Young De, Evidence, The Alchemist and Cheech & Chong. The net effect is to improve, rather than detract from, what is a strong set of songs - old school hip hop upgraded for 2010. Cypress Hill were the first Latino hip hop group to go platinum, and Rise Up is a welcome return to the studio.

ACE rating 9/10


Annuals
Sweet Sister
Banter
Once upon a time, Annuals looked set to be the bloggers and critics' band for all time. Preceding Yeasayer and Arcade Fire, the band's ecstatic electro-hypnotic folk had an appeal all its own. Be He Me in 2006 looked set to launch the band as a massive new name. Then, the members went and did a few side projects, they self-released a weak EP in 2008, and now there is a self-released EP. While way more appealing than Such Fun, Sweet Sister does seem to lack a killer blow. It is nice enough - bouncier and breezier than what's gone before. Opener Loxtep is as good as this EP gets, with its World beats, Fleet Foxes harmonies and electro-frills all over the song. Annuals do know how to pull off this kind of thing with aplomb, and if we had an album full of such quality, all would be well with the world. However, the EP descends into some seemingly-easy retread, arrested slightly by Turncloaking. If this is a foretaste, that's a shame. If it is just a release because this stuff was sitting around, ho hum.

ACE rating 6/10

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 28.03.10

Katey Brooks
Proof of Life
True Speaker
On this debut album, Bristol's Katey Brooks proves why comparisons to Tracy Chapman, Joan Armatrading and Toni Childs (and, in reference to her style, probably, John Martyn) have accompanied live reviews so far.
Having enjoyed a rapid rise to attention locally, and with guest appearances aplenty and a spot on the Children in Need single, she is clearly a singer on the rise. Here, 10 songs tell the story wonderfully, from the deeper and more reflective to the rockier (This Old Skin, Hunger). Where her star really shines, though, is on two of the more interesting sidebars - Lines is a remarkable song, self-expressive in the way Edie Brickell's Circles was. The album closes on Michael Row The Boat Ashore, where her voice - capable of raw, emotional power, is given its lovely head.

ACE rating 8/10


Sparklehorse
Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain
Parlophone
Sparklehorse main man Mark Linkous had a pretty traumatic ride until he took his own life this year. On Dreamt For Light Years, he returned to the mesmerising form of Vivadixesubmarinetransmissionplot, bolstered by the talents of guests like Tom Waits, Dangermouse and The Flaming Lips' Stephen Drodz. Here, Linkous' quiet voice and unusual choices of melody almost always come off, recalling bands like dEUS more than other spacey acts like The Flaming Lips. This is a proper muso album, almost firmly in the adult end of the spectrum, but altogether accessible for anyone who leans towards rock. Revisited after such a sad ending, it is easy to wonder why you didn't recognise its classic status immediately. It could have been made at any point from Sergeant Pepper or Dark Side Of The Moon onwards, so spacey and psych-y is it. It doesn't hit bullseyes throughout, but it never goes further than the 25.

ACE rating 9/10


Django Django
WOR/ Skies Over Cairo
Django Django
This is your chance to get in on the ground level. Still remaining independent, Scottish/ East London band Django Django follow up last year's remarkable EP Storm/ Love's Dart with this Beta Band-like piece of brilliance. Already vying for single of the year so far, WOR is a song that channels Peter Gunn guitar with 2010 rhythms and oh-so-clever harmonies - it has turnarounds, interplay and most of all it gets better the louder you turn it up. The UK has always had a knack for turning out bands that stimulate heart and head, and Django Django look like being one of those bands you should hook onto now.

ACE rating 8/10

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 21.03.10

Fang Island
Fang Island
Sargent House
Do you know what ecstasy sounds like? Well, chances are it sounds something like this Brooklyn's band, whose blend of Built To Spill guitars, Go! Team infectious enthusiasm, Minus The Bear jags and Fleet Foxes harmonising is a treat if you're properly sugared up.
Many of the songs here aren't songs at all, but seemingly riotous celebrations of a theme. As such, it is the Battles of 2010 - a set of music that is likely to end up in places that didn't know they needed something exactly like this. The musicianship is very good, which given that there aren't many lyrics about (and few good lyrics anywhere) is a real blessing. It is easy to come away with the impression that a concert by this 5-piece would be a joyous hoot, if the exuberance on this second album can be channelled on stage. The album is only 30 minutes long, but it's unlikely that your first hit of porgy punk like this will need more than that to get you hooked.

ACE rating 8/10


The Whigs
In The Dark
Ato
Now this is a real shame, of the order of OK Go's recent new album shame. The Whigs seemed like Athens, Georgia's new awesomest band for the whole of their 2008 album Mission Control. Now, they release this tossed-off re-tread. Aping both themselves and Kings of Leon's breakthrough in the sub-stadium dirty rock space, there are two proper songs here - In The Dark and Kill Me Carolyne. And those two songs are genuinely excellent, especially the title track, handily released as the free mp3 single prior to the album's release for the usual reason - to convince you the record would be this good. Elsewhere, songs like I Don't Even Care About The One I Love sound like some horror 80s rock pastiche, and Naked exactly like someone ingested a Walkmen album on the way to the studio. It may be too early to add The Whigs to the 'oh no, what happened' pile, but they seem to have mistaken the interest in their straightahead rock for interest in their danceable variety.

ACE rating 6/10

Sarah Jaffe
Even Born Again
Summer Break
This is an older record, all of 2008, but well worth a revisit. Sarah Jaffe contributed some vocals to the Molina and Johnson album, and her amazing voice has, as a result, been somewhat more in demand. This lovely little album is all the proof that you need that this bluesy, folky indie singer songwriter is something special - her voice is not traditionally beautiful, but goes right to the core, like a more in tune Janis Joplin. Even Born Again manages to be perfectly romantic and soft, while hard and hurt at the same time - the voice expresses such vulnerability. Like Rachel Yamagata, she mixes in electricity perfectly when needed (as on Under), or takes it back to simply picked guitar to illustrate the wonder of simple beauty. This is a gem of a record, and shouldn't pass unnoticed.

ACE rating 9/10

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 14.03.10

Titus Andronicus
The Monitor
Merok
Both cerebral and not at all cerebral, this second album from New Jersey band Titus Andronicus tells a story based around the American Civil War as metaphor, and does it in the most exuberant of punk.
To get a proper sense for the music on offer, you'd need to run The Hold Steady through a Sex Pistols filter, with a good load of Dropkick Murphys for drunken balance. The Monitor (named after an 1850s battleship) is full of swearing, erudition and spit and fire, and a huge thrashy spirit that builds on the eponymous debut album's slackness with some real songs and direction. This band may be proving to be one of the more interesting counterpoints in American music, now that Green Day's politics are getting more stadium-level. The Monitor is a riot, almost literally, from start to finish, with rules turned over like cars in the streets. It is also a proper hoot.

ACE rating 9/10


The White Stripes
Under Great White Northern Lights
XL
Most people now know of The White Stripes, almost as a phenomenon as much as a band. With Jack White spending so much time in side projects like The Raconteurs, the essence of the band has not been well captured in a long while. Fortunately, there is the occasionally great live performance to draw from, as a reminder of why some of us would prefer he stick to his day job. This is one of those shows, recorded in Nova Scotia, and he was clearly having a good day, one filled with audience interaction and energy. Highlights include a slowed-down (and full of sexual tension) Fell In Love With A Girl, and songs drawn liberally from the earlier albums (including covers like Jolene and I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself). The real highlight, however, is the level of bluesy edgy melody that a man with a guitar and a female drummer can put into a room. Unlike many live albums, this would be a great place to dive into The White Stripes' canon.

ACE rating 8/10


Drive By Truckers
The Big To Do
PIAS
The Big To Do is Drive By Truckers tenth album, and follows Brighter Than Creation's Dark, which seemed like something of a misstep in their career - lots of songs thrown together with no overarching 'album' feel. Fortunately, this album drags the band best to what they do best - the rock of their own Southern Rock Opera. Like Neil Young on a fiery day, DBT are capable of dragging steel from rust - and here the rock flows from a country-ish folk-ish underlay. Since Jason Isbell departed, the band have taken a little while to get comfortable to continue playing the kind of music they did when he was there, but there is no doubt here that rock prevails - from the first bars, the electricity only tails off on the last quarter of the record. Joint lead singer-songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley keep their respective roles, but with renewed emphasis on great songs and great riffs, rather than just great lyrics. Fantastic to see one of America's best rock bands back on track.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 07.03.10

Clem Snide
The Meat of Life
429
Clem Snide have it all - in Eef Barzelay a songwriter capable of the most poignant, witty sharp lyrics out there, delivering them with a voice that's not beautiful in any way other than its vulnerability. Clem Snide also have a roster of albums that move close to perfection, if you like your indie rock thoughtful rather than grungey. So, after last year's lovely Hungry Bird, The Meat of Life comes as a somewhat unfortunate surprise. The songs mostly drift around on similar melodies, and a similar mood, forcing the attention onto the lyrics. They're still remarkable lyrics, dripping with irony and humorous bitterness, but the album comes across as dry and underdone, as if more music needed to be thrown around first on top of the lazy country jazzy texture. We should be thankful for more Clem Snide - until 2009, it seemed the band might be no more - but here it seems more time between albums could have been a good thing.

ACE rating 7/10


Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Beat The Devil's Tattoo
V2
Success came early to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, as the group were instantly propelled into the limelight on the back of their debut album. Beat The Devil's Tattoo sees them complete a full circle, having gone a bit country gospel, and a bit experimental, along the way. As nicely Jesus and Mary Chain as is reasonable, BRMC mix in some Black Crowes for good effect, maybe some T-Rex and even some Cage The Elephant, and end up recalling their own debut wonderfully. When good, they kick the behind of pretenders like Kings of Leon. It's not the most modern-sounding record, a point almost confirmed by the artwork, but they do have the benefit of a strong set of songs, played really well (even if you fear for the pounding that the drums take throughout - dished out by Raveonettes drummer, Leah Shapiro here). It is a frowny miserablist view of the Goth's favourite rock band, but it is also a whole lot of bluesy good times.

ACE rating 8/10


Joe Walsh
The Definitive Collection
Universal
'Definitive' in this case means 'the best 15 songs you'll need from Joe Walsh's solo career and James Gang time (the group he was in before the Eagles)' as you'll not find any Eagles material here, and the double disc 'Look At What I Did' is way too much for any introductory dip into the work of an unassuming and under-recognised guitar genius. The famous songs like Life's Been Good and Rocky Mountain Way are here, along with wonderful pieces like Funk No 49 - showcasing his wonderful feel with a slide, and ability to funk up some rock nicely. The subtitle of the album - Greatest Hits: Little Did He Know - suggests a man whose career took more surprising turns than even he could have guessed, but there is little doubt that listeners who know and love the hits will also enjoy every other track here. As a way to discover Joe Walsh's music, it is hard to imagine a better solution.

ACE rating 7/10


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

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Frightened Rabbit
The Winter of Mixed Drinks
Fat Cat
The best band in Scotland by some distance now, Frightened Rabbit have built a huge reputation among indie fans, but with The Winter Of Mixed Drinks look set to break through into mainstream attention.
It is deserved, and for those of us who care it will be glorious to see a band with this kind of quality begin to appeal to mainstream listeners. The Winter Of Mixed Drinks builds on its predecessor Midnight Organ Fight with another great title and a wonderful set of blustery intelligent acoustic electric rock. With lead single Swim Until You Can't See Land (and its wonderful refrain 'Swim until you can't see land, are you a man or are you a bag of sand?') already out there worming its way into public consciousness, the sound of stubborn rebellion, Celtic folk, and fierce wit brings to mind a 2010 Big Country. There may be no single song that tops The Modern Leper (Nothing Like You comes close), but each song builds so well that you start to see things only one way. If there is a criticism, it is that there is a feeling of padding in the inclusion of part songs and ideas, which loses a great album one point.

ACE rating 8/10


Turin Brakes
Outbursts
Cooking Vinyl
Turin Brakes had a golden period around the beginning of the 2000s, when their album Ether Song seemed to make the soundtrack to every TV programme, and provide the background music to every middle class dinner party. A kinder, gentler Elbow, the duo make nice, acoustic music for nice people. Unfortunately for them, they have moved on not one jot in the 7 years since Ether Song; Outbursts may be their 5th studio album, but is a plain and simple retread of everything that's gone before. Despite claiming that every record sees them move on, there is a strong sense that they have found that journey away from their initial success frustrating, so have aimed at Ether Songs II. Outbursts starts nicely enough, with the only song worthy of attention (Sea Change), but even that is several notches lower than say a Jacob Golden song. If Turin Brakes are your thing, this is 45 minutes of more of the same. If they are new to you, do seek out Ether Song - it is still a great listen. Outbursts would provide inoffensive dinner party music still, but it seems to have no other purpose.

ACE rating 6/10


Deadstring Brothers
Sao Paulo
Bloodshot
The Deadstring Brothers have not changed their formula over the years - aping late 60s/ early 70s Rolling Stones. If, like most, you agree that that was the best Stones period, this is a cause for celebration, as the Stones stopped making great music some 25 years ago. Sao Paulo can't touch the heights of that band's best, but with its blend of country, blues and rock, there is some sense that this is a comforting place to spend some time - Sao Paulo's most obvious comparison is with Exile On Main Street, which is a rather high benchmark. An album that works better when consumed as a whole, to allow time for the mood to emerge and sink in, rather than sampled one song at a time, this is good time rock and roll. The Deadstring Brothers give the lie to those who claim that they don't make music the way they used to, because this Detroit band only seem to know one way to make them.

ACE rating 7/10

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 21.02.10

The Strange Boys
Be Brave
Rough Trade
Texans do things differently, but not always bigger, if this wonderful little album is anything to go by. Coming across as The Basement Tapes might if Mick Jagger had taken The 60s Stones in that direction, Be Brave is full of a rusty, dusty blend of country, rock and blues.
The Strange Boys take Jason and the Scorchers onto a new, indie level the way that The Walkmen do when they play country. This record is as far from the X Factor as a record could get and still be released by a major(ish) label, but for those who partake, it has an infectiousness and a sheer joy to its existence that equally elevates other bands you've never heard of, like White Hassle or Delta Spirit - you will be so glad you came in, and want to share the secret, but realistically someone who listens to Radio 2 or a pop station is not going to get this record. If you prefer the 73 Springsteen to the 2009 one, the 60s Stones to the 80s Stones, however, do seek out this record.

ACE rating 9/10


Great Lake Swimmers
The Legion Sessions
Nettwerk
Canada's Great Lake Swimmers don't make music, they make beauty sound like something. Front man Tony Dekker looks like the kind of man on whom religions get built, and sings like an angel. The Legion Sessions was recorded in a pub - the Royal Canadian Legion Pub - and features live acoustic versions of their acoustic songs from the lovely Lost Channels record. It is, if you like, a second chance to hear those songs, a perspective 2 degrees away from the one you first came at them. Songs like Palmistry and Pulling On A Line are gorgeous, layered and gentle, like a warm clear stream - Dekker makes every song a vulnerable, fragile thing, and the band adorn each perfectly with the minimum of effort and frill. The record sounds great, too - the feel of the wooden floor is tangible - this is no sticky-floored British pub, clearly. If you don't have Lost Channels already, it doesn't make sense to start here, although you can see most of the Sessions songs on YouTube to see if you'll like it. if you do, this will help you hear it in 3D.

ACE rating 8/10


Steve Vai
Where The Wild Things Are (Live in Minneapolis)
Favored Nations
Take care that this isn't something you buy by accident expecting the film soundtrack. There is a DVD to accompany this tour de force, but this is as high end as rock guitar gets, and there is no nice warm feeling at the end. Steve Vai is a guitarist's guitarist, and even those guitarists don't necessarily like what he does - the extreme technicality of the playing requires an appreciation of how hard it is to do at least as much as any appreciation of it as 'music'. However, the CD of this show contains 15 tracks that highlight an amazing front man of an amazing band - Vai has collected a band of virtuosos, including two violinists who can match his speed and style. This elevates the music from straight rock to jazz fusion, and brings him closer to his own Frank Zappa band roots than he has been in a long time, if with less improvisation. For the guitarist listener, there are probably too many vocal tracks, but songs like Now We Run or Oooo are simply jawdropping.

ACE rating 8/10

Monday, 15 February 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 14.02.10

The Soft Pack
The Soft Pack
Heavenly
If it’s true that all publicity is good publicity, then this San Diego band may well have decided that they could continue to call themselves The Muslims for this debut album. Fortunately, more sensible heads prevailed and this album is being allowed to stand on its own merits.
‘Fortunately’ because this album captures the spirit of The Strokes’ early work and mixes in some Fall to come out with something that isn’t new, isn’t big and certainly isn’t clever, but is the
same kind of infectious as the Von Bondies breakthrough, or the short-lived 22-20s. There is some early Beatles pop, some early REM driving Rickenbacker sounds and a whole lot of the kind of college/ underground rock that needs no explanation – full of songs, juvenile attitude and thrashed guitars. Hipsters may wish for more archness, more of the kind of image cultivated by The Drums, but leave them to their anxieties, and enjoy this album for what it is – it isn’t trying to change the world, just make 30 minutes of it pass more quickly.

ACE rating 8/10


The Smoking Popes
It’s Been A Long Day
Asian Man
For fans of The Smoking Popes, it was interesting that Morrissey suggested they were his favourite band, as they always had the sound of a Smiths that had taken REM’s punkier college rock to heart. In one respect, The Smoking Popes were one of America’s most important punk bands in the 90s, combining melody and catchy rock with their attitude preceding Green Day’s increasing popularity. This collection of unreleased material from 1991-1998 is raw and unpolished, but does give a great insight into the generation. Many songs come in under 2 minutes, and it is remarkable how much can be fitted into those 120 seconds. The overwhelming impression that remains now is of a band whose punk got subsumed under the pop surface. We can’t complain too much of that – I Need You Around from 1995’s Born To Quit remains on of THE great singles of the past 20 years. Consider this an album for completists - Born to Quit and 2008’s Stay Down should come ahead of this in your Shopping Cart.

ACE rating 7/10


Yeasayer
Odd Blood
EMI
Yeasayer have gone from the territory they set up for Vampire Weekend to a more electronic 80s place. All Hour Cymbals was, by their own admission, Middle Eastern-Psych-Pop-Snap-Gospel, which either means that a lot of good ideas were thrown into a melting pot from which the best were chosen, or that an occasionally unseemly mess resulted. The adulation that accompanied songs like 2080 did seem to suggest that the band had got some things right, however. Odd Blood is definitely an album of two halves – the first a melted down Pet Shop Boys synthy disco mix, and the second described as ‘experimental.’ In this case, that does mean what you fear it might – there is barely a song to be found in the sub-Talking Heads mess. Best avoided unless you desperately want the badge of novelty pinned to your ironic T-shirt.

ACE rating 6/10

Monday, 8 February 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 07.02.10

Hurray For The Riff-Raff
Young Blood Blues
eMusic
There was a time when Michelle Shocked's Texas Campfire Songs was shocking. Alynda Lee, here known as Hurray For The Riff Raff, on her second album, is as folky as it gets, having left home at 17 to ride freight trains and play washboard in a street band. Her voice, all Cat Power and Shocked, is a powerful instrument in the sparse mix of banjo, accordion, and percussion, but she is at her best when delivering a line like 'you stick the needle in your arm and the baby starts crying' on Slow Walk. The capacity of songs like I Know You to be seductively bluesy is just gorgeous, and full of character. If more blues was less reverent and paid attention to its folk roots,
records like this might be easier to come by - if, as they say, blues is just the sound of a good man/ woman feeling bad, then the absence of melancholy that suggests is written all of the way through this. Its edges are its character, and its depth its primary raison d'ĂȘtre.

ACE rating 9/10

The Features
Some Kind of Salvation
Serpents and Snakes
The Features may come from Nashville, but they sound like Tennessee brethren Kings of Leon might if they came from Brighton - bouncy, edgy pop that is at once upbeat and rocking. Some Kind of Salvation is their second album after the band had trouble with the major label that released their first, Exhibit A. It is an improvement on that debut in every way - the songs are better, lyrically and musically: more fully-reconciled, more fully featured. The band do have a 60s pop inspiration, but front man Matt Pelham takes any Kinks-y leanings and mixes them nicely with some more modern Fratellis-like indie, all hooks, groove and funk. The UK charts need something with the delight of Wooden Heart, GMF or Lions (the Chelsea Dagger of this album). With some more promotion behind them, The Features could well be a massive band on this side of the Atlantic too. Fortunately, this re-release is on the Kings of Leon's label, so that may well tip the balance.

ACE rating 8/10

Jason and the Scorchers
Halcyon Times
JCPL
How does 'first album of all-new material since 1996' sound to you? Enough to strike fear that some old band has been forced by penury into the studio again, and that some retread will be the order of the day? Well, in the case of Jason and the Scorchers, put that thought far from your mind. Back in the day, J&TS and their version of cowpunk (think of the way that The Pogues turned Irish folk music into something hornier and dirtier, then think of that done to awesome country music) turned out something approaching genius, especially on Fervor their EMI debut in 1983. It is one of the all-time great records, and it has been argued (pretty successfully) that this was the album that generated alt-country, not Son Volt. Halcyon Times may not quite approach the spark that ignited Fervor, but it does have the kind of quality that sustained its follow-up albums Lost and Found and Still Standing. The cheekiness is still there, the hard rock, the melodic approach and the absolute absence of any subtlety. Funky as all get-out, there are all sorts of reasons to be grateful for this all-new material.

ACE rating 8/10

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 31.01.10

Midlake
The Courage of Others
Bella Union
Before the Fleet Foxes, the band whose retreat to early 70s hippiness was most successful was Midlake, and their lovely 2007 second album The Trials of Van Occupanther. With The Courage of Others, Midlake move closer to English folk (Pentangle, Fairport Convention) and a Woodstock-y/ Age of Aquarius vibe – it is never happy, and built around a theme that modern life sucks. Fortunately, the music makes up for that by being in itself gently uplifting. Plus ca change and all that, but there isn’t much here that wasn’t explored 40 years ago – Midlake may sound boldly unconventional now, but only by sounding conventional for an earlier time. The Denton, Texas band clearly have a wonderful feel for pastoral melody, dynamics and harmony, but too often here the feel is of earnestness and ennui.

ACE rating 7/10

The Drums
Summertime EP
Moshi Moshi
Anyone who got The Girls and their debut Album will be dead centre for this EP, from Brooklyn band The Drums. It will help if they come armed with their Joy Division, Stone Roses and The Cure chops, but that is only a starting point – The
Drums sound is a clear, 60s surfer-dude sound, with all of the exuberance that entails. In fact, the band that they most resemble is the Shout Out Louds, who have made this kind of thing their own in recent years. If new music for you means finding bands whose youthful energy overwhelms any over-production or world-weariness, The Drums will be an easy listen – the EP is not polished, and just raw fun in certain places, but it fizzes with that certain something that makes people start bands. Knocks Vampire Weekend into a cocked hat.

ACE rating 8/10

The Len Price 3
Pictures
Wicked Cool
Another revisit to older times, Len Price 3 take the period when the Beatles made pop records, and The Kinks threw out radio-friendly single after single. No one in the band is called Len Price, oddly, as it suggests the band chose the name to refer back to a golden 60s period. The way that the record sounds mirrors that – there seems to have been too great an attempt to make it sound as though it could be an uncovered 60s gem. The Kent trio do mix in some nice The Who, Squeeze-y, Jilted John cockernee punk, and the 13 tracks come in around the half hour mark, so no song outstays its welcome. Signed to Steve Van Zandt’s Wicked Cool label (van Zandt has a strong view that music has been downhill since 1970, and that mono is where it is at), The Len Price 3 have recently been knocking out some stellar singles, which are front-loaded into this album – the rest feels like a valiant attempt to pad the 30 minutes.

ACE rating 7/10

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 24.01.10


Vampire Weekend
Contra
XL/ Beggars
A lot of people liked Paul Simon’s Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints period. It’s not so cool for kids to say they like it now, though, so what they say they like instead is Vampire Weekend. Contra is such an updated Rhythm of the Saints in all but the presence of Paul Simon that it is hard to understand the hype and adulation that has accompanied the band. Fun, unassuming and as world-y as music gets – they have (as Simon had) added in some Jamaican, Brazilian and some of-the-moment Bangra, and seem to feel passionate about none of it. There are a couple of good tracks here – Cousins is fun and punky, Taxi Cab a little Strokes-y. There are many more reasons to avoid paying for Contra than there are to – the band and their promo are a little too college-boy smug about themselves, and there are a lot of times that this is just too clean and sweet.

ACE rating 7/10


Beach House
Teen Dream
Bella Union
When it comes to buzz, Beach House have it in spades. The band have slowly built up a remarkable reputation based on unassuming, quiet, Brian Wilson-flavoured dream pop/ indie rock (and the support of arch opinionistas Pitchfork, a US website). Somewhere to the dreamy side of Department of Eagles, Grizzly Bear and Mercury Rev, this is an album that is meant to be consumed as a whole, rather than in discrete songs. As such, it takes some time to let it sink in – there isn’t much hummable in here. Perfect for the bloggers of the world, this duo (Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally) rely on intimacy and subtlety to draw in the listener. Beach House is their best album, although it sounds a lot like its predecessor, Devotion – quite a lot of icy coolness and haze to leave the listener with the impression of a still lake with the barest ripple. It is lovely, if not quite the step ahead we might have hoped for.

ACE rating 8/10


California Guitar Trio
On Tour With King Crimson
California Guitar Trio
Rodrigo y Gabriela have rather revived the indie interest in finely played classical flamenco guitar. Unfortunate title aside (there aren’t many proggie moments), the California Guitar Trio follow the Di Meola, McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia format to the hilt – nailing a fusion jazz, classical mix with aplomb. This album mixes in some electric guitar for texture, and throws some fun in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Pipeline and Walk Don’t Run to the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor mix. This is a hugely enjoyable album, if you’re a fan of the guitar – none of the players have a Di Meola-like virtuosity, but that somehow stabilises the music –it isn’t all about the speedy runs and frills, and the trio behave like a trio rather than a rolling showcase for individual talent.

ACE rating 7/10

Adult Contemporary Essentials 24.01.10

Vampire Weekend
Contra
XL/ Beggars
A lot of people liked Paul Simon’s Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints period. It’s not so cool for kids to say they like it now, though, so what they say they like instead is Vampire Weekend. Contra is such an updated Rhythm of the Saints in all but the presence of Paul Simon that it is hard to understand the hype and adulation that has accompanied the band. Fun, unassuming and as world-y as music gets – they have (as Simon had) added in some Jamaican, Brazilian and some of-the-moment Bangra, and seem to feel passionate about none of it. There are a couple of good tracks here – Cousins is fun and punky, Taxi Cab a little Strokes-y. There are many more reasons to avoid paying for Contra than there are to – the band and their promo are a little too college-boy smug about themselves, and there are a lot of times that this is just too clean and sweet.

ACE rating 7/10


Beach House
Teen Dream
Bella Union
When it comes to buzz, Beach House have it in spades. The band have slowly built up a remarkable reputation based on unassuming, quiet, Brian Wilson-flavoured dream pop/ indie rock (and the support of arch opinionistas Pitchfork, a US website). Somewhere to the dreamy side of Department of Eagles, Grizzly Bear and Mercury Rev, this is an album that is meant to be consumed as a whole, rather than in discrete songs. As such, it takes some time to let it sink in – there isn’t much hummable in here. Perfect for the bloggers of the world, this duo (Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally) rely on intimacy and subtlety to draw in the listener. Beach House is their best album, although it sounds a lot like its predecessor, Devotion – quite a lot of icy coolness and haze to leave the listener with the impression of a still lake with the barest ripple. It is lovely, if not quite the step ahead we might have hoped for.

ACE rating 8/10


California Guitar Trio
On Tour With King Crimson
California Guitar Trio
Rodrigo y Gabriela have rather revived the indie interest in finely played classical flamenco guitar. Unfortunate title aside (there aren’t many proggie moments), the California Guitar Trio follow the Di Meola, McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia format to the hilt – nailing a fusion jazz, classical mix with aplomb. This album mixes in some electric guitar for texture, and throws some fun in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Pipeline and Walk Don’t Run to the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor mix. This is a hugely enjoyable album, if you’re a fan of the guitar – none of the players have a Di Meola-like virtuosity, but that somehow stabilises the music –it isn’t all about the speedy runs and frills, and the trio behave like a trio rather than a rolling showcase for individual talent.

ACE rating 7/10

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The Uglysuit

Had the extreme pleasure of finding that The Uglysuit were playing Bowery Electric in NYC while I was there... I am still nonplussed that this band isn't bigger. Their record was one of my Top 10 in 2008 (review here), and here they were opening for two bands I'd not heard of... Even more surprised when it turned out that they kick ass live - huge energy and a Muppets band stage presence...

Well-recorded video, and my two phone videos... And a free mp3 from their amazing record here... (Right click to download, or ctrl-click if you have seen the light.)

Adult Contemporary Essentials 17.01.10

Local Natives
Gorilla Manor
Infectious
It didn’t take long for someone to try themselves out as another Fleet Foxes. This Silverlake, California band are the subject of a lot of buzz, although the record itself doesn’t do enough to justify the adulation. Running Fleet Foxes’ eponymous album through some Yeasayers/ Dirty Projectors messy shouty post-modern indie isn’t enough to properly distance it from Fleet Foxes. That reference runs all the way through this pretty good debut – the music uses its uplifting mass harmonies and swelling melodies well. Like The Morning Benders, or Delta Spirit, there is a lovely sense that this is a band that enjoys making music, even while it stays true to its influences (to be gentle). The lead single, Camera Talking, does at least head off in another direction – that direction being Vampire Weekend... Originality may (or may not) be an overrated virtue in modern music, as here it could detract from what is a fun and much better than average debut. A fan of any of the bands above will be pleasantly surprised by this new addition to their listening material.

ACE rating 7/10


Kevin Devine
Brother’s Blood
Big Scary Monsters
Kevin Devine is like the sweeter, nicer, cuter version of Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull – intelligent indie rock played acoustically, like an updated version of Freedy Johnston. Brother’s Blood is undoubtedly the best record of his career – this is his fifth album – maintaining the ‘eloquent simplicity’ of his fame – often simply acoustic until a dynamic change elevates the song.
Look no further than the Neil Young/ Crazy Horse-ish title song which is both long and good (better than short and good?), and Carnival which goes wonderfully nuts at the end. Devine also mixes in some sweet pop with his indie to great effect – songs like Yr Husband and I Could Be With Anyone are infectious, neatly crafted gems in the mix. The genre may well overlap with emo, but it is a more adult, more intelligent version of the same, a Colour Revolt version. Do find it and give it a listen.

ACE rating 8/10


OK Go
Of The Blue Colour of the Sky
Capitol
OK Go may not enjoy the kind of credibility among the hip tastemakers who decide if a band is fashionable or not, but their remarkably creative videos (the treadmill video is something of a pop culture classic), and consistently great music, mark them out as a proper adult alternative band. What they do really well is make tight, literate rock with a knowing nod. Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky sees them move in the same direction My Morning Jacket did, towards Prince-y funk, rather than their more straightahead rock of previous albums. Unfortunately, as with My Morning Jacket, while there is some merit in the album, it isn’t what an OK Go fan might expect to find. The tightness is still there in manicured lines, but there is little rock on display – a lot of falsetto, a lot of effects, electronics and a few songs in the 15 on the album. OK Go had it in them to be one of the great unsung rock bands, but Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky will hopefully just go down as an experiment.

ACE rating 5/10

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 10.01.10

Freelance Whales
Weathervanes
Freelance Whales
So, the question would be “do you need more Sufjan Stevens music?” If the answer is ‘yes’ (and why would it not be?), then there is a place for you go that is more reliable than a new Sufjan Stevens’ album.
Probably, the Sufjan that you started to love on Illinois made the kind of nimble, beautiful folk that this five-piece from Queens, NY, do. The band, who have crafted their music on the subways of New York, trade elegant instrumentation, biblical references and a gorgeous voice to transport you to a nicer place. Fortunately, there seems not to be a contrivance or a false moment anywhere, and the nice blend of indie folk steers it nicely the right side of twee. A song like Broken Horse is simply lovely, while Hannah is laden down with hooks and funk, unusual instrumentation and harmony. While you’re waiting on the new Beach House, Freelance Whales is a good place to shelter.

ACE rating 8/10


Mt St Helens Vietnam Band
Mt St Helens Vietnam Band
Dead Oceans
These guys could be too clever for their own good (what with their 15 year old drummer, and their viral video promos that launched their career). Fortunately, they have the indie rock chops to back up their innovation. Unfortunately, those chops aren’t their own. The band plagiarise heavily (they could call it inspiration, or paying tribute) and there are undoubtedly some good spirits among the fun to be had. Unlike so many British tribute bands, this Seattle band draw from bands like Modest Mouse, The Hold Steady and The Shins. Which shows some originality, but less than, you know, actually being original. Come at the album without that knowledge and you could have a pretty good time, but you would have to leave your cool indie cred to one side in doing so. Mt St Helens Vietnam Band clearly can do it, but to prove they have sustainability, they’ll need more than a teenage drummer.

ACE rating 6/10


Andrew Bird
Noble Beast
Bella Union
Andrew Bird has a wonderful four albums to his name - the multi-instrumentalist (a classically-trained violinist) reached his zenith with The Mysterious Production Of Eggs, a gorgeous, clever, sophisticated delight of an album. Were you to imagine a muso Jeff Buckley, you'd not be far wrong, with Bird's wonderfully warm, soaring voice accompanying his pizzicato violin, and (often simultaneously) multi-tracked instruments. Noble Beast is a bit of a departure, and not always an entirely welcome one. Whereas he's been pretty self-reliant in past, this album sees him rope in some members of Wilco to indie up the sound. The result, with Mark Nevers (producer of Lambchop and Calexico) at the desks, is a little one-dimensional - nice enough, but lacking the kind of flights of fancy that entertained so much, and that can easily be misclassified as experimental. It is an album that has a stronger crust to break through, and once in it is a little flat. Bird seems to have taken himself pretty seriously here - the whimsy of his music lost. Instead, Noble Beast sounds like later-era Paul Simon, but played and sung beautifully.

ACE rating 8/10

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Adult Contemporary Essentials 03.01.10

Jesca Hoop
Hunting My Dress
Last Laugh
Jesca Hoop used to be Tom Waits' kids' nanny, but with this record will be known for so much more.
A follow up to her debut, Kismet, this is a short record at 9 songs, but that is quickly irrelevant as the promise of so many wannabe off-the-wall female singer-songwriters is finally delivered. Mix in some Kate Bush with some Bjork, some Emiliana Torrini and then give it a Tom Waits rhythmic arrangement, and you have something that should keep advert makers in soundtracks for years. The apparent simplicity of the songs covers their complexity the way that Feist's 1,2,3,4 did, and the voice with its impressive range and its gorgeous accent says so much so easily. With Elbow's Guy Garvey on one track, and people like Tom Waits describing her music as 'like swimming in a lake at night' (which is a good thing, it seems), Hunting My Dress deserves its re-release. This is a perfect little album that will make the Joanna Newsome fans realise what they've been missing.

ACE rating 9/10


Royal Bangs
Let It Beep
Audio Eagle
Royal Bangs' debut, We Breed Champions, was an amphetamine rush of an album, with its sludgy electro-rock, straightahead punchy indie and the sound of a 10ft square studio. Like a Stoogier version of the Walkmen or a dirtier Weezer, this is a record that deserves your attention. There aren't many songs out there that are better than Cat Swallow or Brother. Let It Beep is a quickly released follow up on The Black Keys' Patrick Carney's Audio Eagle label, and it is, if anything, even messier than its predecessor. That's not always good - although the energy is undoubted, there is an occasional sense that you'd just like them to nail a song, as they do on 1993, or opener War Bells. When they do that, this is an essential band - the raw production takes nothing away. They also add in some Battles-like electronica for good measure. No doubt about it, Let It Beep is as disjointed as the debut, but Royal Bangs on their day are one of the most exciting bands around.

ACE rating 8/10


Great Lake Swimmers
Lost Channels
Nettwerk
The fourth album by Toronto, Canada, band Great Lake Swimmers is a revelation. The band, whose core is singer songwriter Tony Dekker (whose looks, like a modern-day Jesus, accompany his gentle, warm, angelic voice perfectly), have made albums of fragile beauty, with the odd standout track – like Shearwater without the melodrama. In Lost Channels, however, unlike its predecessor Ongiara, there is no weak track – this is an album of sheer understated loveliness, its rare beauty intact and a mood as deeply affecting as the best of Dekker’s work. There is not even the semblance of a doubt that anyone who took something from Fleet Foxes’ debut or Shearwater’s Rook would love this disc, with its updated Horse With No Name America feel – harmonies and acoustic guitars spin a magical web here.

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