Sunday, 17 June 2012

Is this thing on?

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Juliana Hatfield 'Peace and Love'

Writing this blog for the last couple of years has been an enormous pleasure. Looking back on all the posts, I have a great record of all the music I have heard, how my tastes have changed a bit and evidence of the joy I get from discovering great new music. Sometimes though, I have to document my disappointment with an album and that is especially difficult when it is an album by an artist who I have been a fan of for many years.

...and I have been a fan of Juliana Hatfield's since the early 90s, a couple of her records are two of my all-time favourites. 'Only Everything', released in 1995 and lost in the middle of grunge and britpop was a brutal but celebratory record of anthems, hard-hitting and euphoric. 'Beautiful Creature' just a few years later was a tender album of ballads, though lyrically just as brutal as 'Only Everything'. Hatfield has fought the good fight for nearly 20 years now and in the last ten she has still produced great moments, particularly on 2002's 'Gold Stars' collection and 2004's patchy but occasionally inspired 'In Exile Deo'.

Whereas for most of her career Juliana seemed to fluctuate between producing loud, abrasive records and tender heartfelt ones, the last couple have been firmly placed in the middle of the road, musically and lyrically and her last full-length 'How To Walk Away' was disturbingly bland. So, a solo acoustic album of off-the-cuff, raw and heartfelt numbers seemed a great idea. Hatfield plays every instrument here and most of the songs on 'Peace and Love' are just acoustic guitar and vocals. Unfortunately and surprisingly, this does not make for a pleasurable listening experience.

Back on 'Beautiful Creature, a song recorded in this manner 'Slow Motion' sounded simply stunning. Gentle, spare but full of tension and drama, it was one of the most beautiful and poignant moments of her career. Nothing here comes close. The opener and title track is a simple plea for the 'peace and love' in the title, with generic lyrics over even more generic acoustic guitar. It is twee and ever so crushingly dull.

So much here follows that template. 'Why Can't We Love Each Other?' follows exactly the same formula, non-descript guitar and the title repeated over and over again. It sticks in your head, but you don't want it to.

There are some good moments, so to make myself feel better, perhaps I should talk about those. 'Butterflies' is lyrically childlike and musically quite lovely with some nice piano and a pleasant melody, 'Evan' (yes, that Evan) is full of heart on sleeve reminiscing with a nice coda and 'Unsung' is a pretty instrumental.

Elsewhere though, most songs drift past without capturing the imagination or holding the attention and that is after repeated listening. 'Peace and Love' unfortunately sounds like a bonus demos cd that might be given away free with an album to show how the songs sounded before they were worked out properly. It is intimate, yes. But it is also weak.

It gives me no pleasure to write this review. I paid for this record, I'm a fan...I wanted to love it.


['Peace and Love' is out now on Ye Olde Records]

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Beach House 'Teen Dream'

This has hardly been off the TracksandGigs stereo for the last couple of weeks, but my own record-reviewing rules now permit that I have to live with an album for at least that amount of time before writing about it. I've made some mistakes in the past, you see.

Not this time though, because I've consistently loved 'Teen Dream' from the first time I played it and subsequent listens have served only to confirm and enhance its status. This is the third Beach House album, but somehow I've missed the previous efforts from French-born Victoria Legrand and Baltimore native Alex Scally. Legrand sings and plays organ, while Scally contributes guitar and keyboards. Their sound is best described as dream pop, sometimes sounding like a glorious mix of Mazzy Star and Cocteau Twins.

The first thing that struck me about 'Teen Dream' is what a visual and cinematic record it is. Each of the ten tracks seems to occupy its own world, creating strong pictures and feelings. Opener 'Zebra' is a sweeping, majestic symphony with Legrand singing beautiful over swirls of keyboards, guitar and cymbals. This sets the scene perfectly for a memorable collection of elegant pop songs, sweeping you up in emotions before you even get round to thinking about the lyrics, the music is rich and very spacious.

In truth, most of the songs (or 'pieces' might even be a better description) are highlights. 'A Walk In the Park' has a lonely, yearning vocal over a simple keyboard and drum machine background and sound impossibly soulful and timeless, 'Norway' is the-one-you-may-have-heard-on-the-radio, opening with the foreboding "we were sleeping until you came along.." and building into a chorus with the longest possible stretching out of the word 'Norway'. While the most immediate and catchy tracks are frontloaded, one of the best is right at the end...'10 Mile Stereo' sounds like a soundtrack to footage of the Winter Olympics if ever I heard one, moving from quiet, inspirational vocals into a surging drum-machine led mid section which is almost hypnotic.

'Teen Dream' provides a wonderful listening experience. Legrand's vocals are rich and textured and the soundscapes are deceptively minimal, providing diverse and evocative backgrounds. Thoroughly enjoyable and a rewarding listen which reveals more of itself each time you play it.


['Teen Dream' is out now on Bella Union]

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Eels 'End Times'

Break-up albums seem to be all the rage these days. Noah and The Whale's excellent 'The First Days Of Spring' was an enthralling account and dissection of the last days and aftermath of a relationship and the new Eels record seems to be designed from a similar template, but with some differences.

'End Times' begins with 'The Beginning', a flashback to the opening days of the relationship when everything was "beautiful and free". Delicate and acoustic, it seems to set the scene for the unraveling of the story to come. Instead, Everett moves right to the end with 'Gone Man', a fuzzy rocker which thematically links the end of the relationship with the deterioration of the planet. Its a great track and easily the most raucous recording here.

From here on, the album mainly focuses on acoustic laments, heavy on self pity and sorrow. 'In My Younger Days', for example, is beautifully sung but deeply depressing as Everett describes how he would have been able to shrug off a setback like this...if he wasn't so damn old. Here and there, the songwriting is so accomplished that it rises above the gloom. 'A Line In The Dirt', with some piano and a falsetto vocal, encapsulates the end of the relationship in a verse and a chorus (including the killer line..."she locked herself in the bathroom again/ so I am pissing in the yard")and is the best track on the album.

Things are more interesting too when Everett moves away from the acoustic laments. 'Paradise Blues' is livelier again with some anger in evidence, while 'Apple Trees' is a sad, spoken word reminiscence but sounds fresh and different.

The album, of course, describes Everett's real-life separation and divorce and there is no resolution towards the end of the album. 'Little Bird' is the nadir, with Everett describing a bird on his porch as his only friend, over a lifeless guitar tune this really is too much. The closing track 'On My Feet' predictably describes Everett's attempts to move on from his pain.

Everything here, with the exceptions of 'Little Bird' and the similarly unspeakable 'I Need A Mother', is eminently listenable and accomplished but the middle part of the record is filled with too many samey downbeat laments. I know this was never a record that would be full of joy and laughter but at times it is seriously hard work. There is still enough here though to show that Eels remains a quality singer-songwriter and capable of real innovation.


['End Times' is out now on Vagrant]

Monday, 18 January 2010

Scout Niblett 'The Calcination of Scout Niblett'

I first heard the music of Scout Niblett seven years ago when I saw her supporting Smog. I was immediately drawn to the exhuberance and simplicity of her songs. She performed solo, alternating between playing drums and guitar but always singing in a quite unique voice, in turn pure and mournful and then vibrant and full of enthusiasm.

Her albums since then have been somewhat patchy, best of all was 2004's 'I Am' which captured best the quiet/loud/quiet/completely demented style of her live shows.

Here she returns with her sixth album, once again produced by Steve Albini. The combination works well since Niblett has, this time, gone for a sound which is heavy on spine chilling electric guitar walls of sound. It is a stripped bare as things can get, usually just guitar or drums with Niblett singing over the top. Her voice has developed into a thing of beauty. She either wails over the top of the loud feedback-drenched workouts or laments with a plaintively pure, soulful voice over the softer ballads...

In truth 'ballads' is a slightly misleading word here because even when things are quiet, this record is full of ice cold menace and you are never far away from a lightning bolt of electric guitar or a flourish of full-band accompaniment. The songs blend seamlessly into one another and the record is certainly presented as a traditional LP, twisting and turning through different moods.

This is far from easy listening but as a mix of garage and blues with a soul singer at the helm, it works well. Musically 'Calcination..' is a dark, fearsome record but when Scout sings the blues, it will melt your heart.


['The Calcination of Scout Niblett' is out now on Drag City]

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Tindersticks tour dates

Whoever booked the Tindersticks London show for their 2010 tour has made a serious error. I have seen the band around 20 times, mostly in London and at some wonderful venues...Royal Court, Union Chapel, Royal Festival Hall, Somerset House...and now what do we get? Shepherds Bush Empire.

Yep, the most inappropriate booking decision I have heard in a long time. ATP are promoting it so I am blaming them. They are playing the infinitely more special Queens Hall in Edinburgh though so I would suggest UK fans try to make that one. I am lucky enough to be seeing them at one of their European dates so will report back from that. UK dates are below anyway. In other news I am currently assessing the new Shearwater and Scout Niblett albums so will write about those next week.

Tindersticks UK dates:

Monday 22 March - Edinburgh, Queens Hall / Venue Box Office: 0131 668 2019

Thursday 23 March - Manchester, Cathedral

Friday 24 March - London, Shepherds Bush Empire

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

New Joanna Newsom album....

Was starting to wonder if either of the two artists who made the seminal American albums of the 00s (that's Joanna Newsom and Sufjan Stevens..) were ever going to follow them up or if the weight of expectation was just too much.

It would seem not, for Newsom at least. After a day of cryptic messages, photos and trails, it has been confirmed that Joanna will release her third full-length album on February 23rd (probably Feb 22 in the UK). It is called 'Have One On Me', which has led some to speculate that it may be free or there may be some other innovative idea behind it's release. Either way, this could not be much more exciting and confirms that 2010 is looking just unbelievably good at the moment. Newsom is currently touring Australia and has dates in the U.S to follow.