Sunday, 16 November 2008

Back from the dead

I'm putting up a few reviews that didn't make the cut up in the majors. Enjoy.

Harry Pussy - You'll Never Play This Town Again
  • Type: Album
  • Release date: 5th November
  • Label: Load Records

Ah, Steely Dan, can they do no wrong? So smooth, so toe-tappingly righteous. So I take Pretzel Logic out of the cd player and stick on Harry Pussy's 'You'll Never Play This Town Again'. Casually glancing at the tracklisting it's impossible to ignore the number of tracks they've squeezed onto the disc (42), or that most tracks repeat 3 times. The potential buyer still might not learn the words on the first listen.

Most songs clock in at under a minute (with the notable exception of the one take freakout jam that is 'Live at Salon Zwerge'). But even though these recordings are songs, in that they start, they end, they've been placed on a CD for your listening pleasure, it's hard to say they sound like the rest of the songs in your record collection. They're primitive, screaming, raging chunks of atonal noise. Either that or three aggro kids whacked out on psychotropic goofballs and handed instruments. Recorded in Miami in the Clinton era 90's, this album is the antithesis of that place and that time. It isn't safety in numbers, retirement homes, pleasant Neapolitan ice cream interior design. It's young hysteria, tomorrow we die, smear shit on the walls, and we should get out of here before the pigs show up stuff.

For those who found the Butthole Surfers too rehearsed, who found Pussy Galore's first album over-produced and bourgeois, who find the concept of musicianship passe, this is the freshmint delight you've been waiting for. For everyone else, it's like taking one in the ear for the team, from the team, in non-alphabetical order. It's like picking up someone at a party to have them stick their tongue down your throat and throw up in your mouth. This is what murderers hear in their heads when they're stabbing folks to death with a knife and fork.

It's interesting. It's a life experience. But not one you desperately want to tell your grandkids about.

Mercury Rev - Snowflake Midnight
  • Type: Album
  • Release date: 29th September
  • Label: V2

Over the past seventeen years, Mercury Rev have quietly become elder statesmen, but they've never been easy to categorize. On Yerself is Steam and Boces they were a vaguely experimental rock outfit, cousins of The Flaming Lips. They dropped some of the weirdness for See you on the other side, becoming a slicker, more direct beast. Finally they struck gold with Deserters Songs, their songwriting scope channelled via widescreen production values and Grasshopper's best Neil Young inspired guitar solos. All is Dream was more of the same, a slightly lesser package overall, but still a captivating, epic work. The acclaim they received was enormous, and entirely just. Then came The Secret Migration, which after a long wait felt like a band looking left, looking right, but still not crossing the street. It wasn't their first album to receive middling reviews, but its arrival did signal the end of their best era. This leaves Snowflake Midnight with a lot to do, and questions to answer. Where would they go next, and would they be as good as they were?

In practice, here Mercury Rev seem to have delivered the perfect dream pop album. It's a term that seems to come up a lot when their name is mentioned, and conjures up notions of bright ethereal images and gently floating sounds. 'October sunshine', a short ambient instrumental that evaded the sister album Strange Attractor is all of these things, and has traces of Ryuichi Sakamoto in his quieter moments. Jonathan Donahue talks of dreams throughout, his own and those of others in that reedy sing song voice. Their former grand scale is condensed into a thick fog, punctuated by sonar pings and haunting piano. Sounds rise and fall through the mix, which is lighter on the guitar than any of their other albums. Grasshopper has been reined in, which bizarrely benefits the album as a whole. The rare and brief occasions he's let off the leash really stand out and hit much harder than they would normally. 'Senses on fire' is a great example of this. It comes on all raindrops and soft keyboard voices, gradually builds the tempo, then finally lets rip. It's a masterclass in tension and release.

If there is anything that might undermine this album, it would be some of Donahue's lyrics, which border on the twee. When 'People are so unpredictable' mentions '[opening] like a curious flower', it's hard not to have a little cringe. Perhaps thankfully, Donahue has been more sparing with his lyrics elsewhere. Oblique phrases come stripped of points of reference, and are occasionally so spare they become mantras. Over a backing with definite aspects of trance to it, this minimalism can be hypnotic and disquieting, as the single 'Butterfly's wing' proves. The quick clapping of 'Faraway from Cars' lends it a child-like innocence, as the lyrics try to disconnect the listener from the things they've learned while growing up. It's genuinely charming, and feels liberating to listen to. The definite step away from their more guitar led work and more personal lyrics might turn a few die hard fans off, but Snowflake Midnight at least shows them to be moving forward again. If you can leave your preconceptions at the door, you'll find Mercury Rev have given the world another slightly skewed but shrewdly excellent work.


Girl Talk: Feed The Animals

  • Type: Album
  • Release date: 20th October (Release pushed back to the end of November)
  • Label: Illegal Art
    Available from: Here

[Fade in]

We're in an antechamber, with a chandelier emitting a dim light on plush red carpet. The room is wide and long. In the middle of the room, a couple of small trolleys have two small white coffins on them. At the far end of the room, next to a door marked 'Preparation Area', rests a large, imperial blue coffin. At the other end of the room, next to some drapes, is a big coffin, obsidian and doomy.

Two men enter from behind the drapes. One is wearing a dark navy suit, the other wears a light blue apron over work clothes. The man in the suit speaks first.

Boss: [looking around] So how are you finding your first day?

Inappropriate Cosmetic Restorative Mortician: Ah, you know busy. People do seem to keep dying...

Boss: Well, yes. [Looks at large blue coffin] Is that Mr Taylor?

ICRM: Yep. Finished him this morning.

Boss: What did you have to do?

ICRM: As you know, Mr Taylor had rope marks around his neck. So I embalmed him, put some make up on the neck [walks over to coffin], did the rest of the make up [opens coffin], and put him in a clown suit!

Boss: (Looking aghast) Sweet Jesus! Why would you want to do that?

ICRM: He just looked so glum. I thought it would be good, y'know. Cheerful.

Boss: Oh God. The family are out in the foyer, he's got to go out in a minute.

ICRM: It'll be magic. The kids will love it. You'll see.

Boss: [Looks at the other coffins] What about the brothers?

ICRM: The Eupin twins? That was a lot more hassle. The train really messed them up. I had to improvise a hand with some play-doh on one of them. They came out quite well in the end though. I think the parents will be pleased [Opens coffins. One boy is dressed up as Batman. The other is dressed up as The Green Goblin]

Boss: (gasps) Batman? The Green Goblin??? They aren't even in the same universe!

ICRM: I know. It's all about the juxtaposition on that one.

Boss: (Very pale by this point) Well, there's still time to fix it, they don't have to go out until tonight [looks over at the coffin at the far end]... Oh, God, no! What have you done to her?

ICRM: (defensively) Nothing out of keeping with a woman of her standing.

[He presses a red button on the wall]

[The coffin stands upright, and organ music plays as dry ice spills out]

I like to think of it as a 're-imagining'.

[The corpse falls forward, suspended by wires. It is Margaret Thatcher in full Peter Criss Kiss costume]

Boss: (Waits a moment) That's some nice work. Couldn't you have done her as Ziggy Stardust?

ICRM: Ta. I'm a big Kiss fan. It's what she would have wanted.

[Fade out]

This short sketch, in a roundabout way, describes how I feel about the Girl Talk album. Neither involve new ideas, and both are only partially successful.

Greg Gillis, the man behind Girl Talk, also has no qualms about 're-imagining' old favourites. In under an hour, he squeezes in and expertly layers 500 samples, in the classic rap-over-rock style you've come to know from mash ups over the last ten years. For the first few minutes, I found myself overwhelmed by trying to pick them all out. His taste and delivery, early on at least, is immaculate. Having Outkast's southern drawl slide over Gimme Some Lovin' by The Spencer Davies Group is an eye opener, and hearing Ludacris' What's your fantasy? overlaid upon Hunger Strike by Temple of the Dog marks Gillis out as music lover from the old school.

There are other examples where his style and selections work well (Jay-Z meeting Paranoid Android is a high point), but the album seems to fade halfway through, mostly through lack of inventive choices. I don't want to hear 'Get your freak on' being mixed with anything else, ever again. I don't want to hear it over Nirvana or Metallica, even as a subtle nod to the forefathers of mash ups. It's been done to death, please leave it alone now. Jimi Hendrix popping up later on ruins a smooth flow in a unpleasant, jarring way. I suppose it's all about the juxtaposition there, too.

That said, 'Feed the animals' is a better than passable remix album, something to stick on at a party as background music, a low level crowd pleaser. While I'm not a backer of the idea that mixing tracks together creates something you can truly call your own, there's no doubting the talent behind this effort. It's just a shame the effort isn't quite as sustained as it could have been.

Muxtape is dead... Long live... Mixwit?

Really like this site. It's easy, it's fun, and it just might work. I made a random mix as a test.
Check it out. No, I'm not being ironic, and saying 'check it out' like we're in 1992. I mean, look and listen.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Benji Hughes - A Love Extreme

I'm very rarely bowled over by records these days. Sometimes I'm pleased when bands I like bring out good records, displeased when they bring out bad ones. Sometimes I take one in the ear for the team (as I did with 'You'll never play this town again' by Harry Pussy), and sometimes there'll be a one in a hundred record that I play until the CD melts ('Rook' by Shearwater). Very rarely there'll be an album that hints at greatness, but cocks it up a bit.

This is where A Love Extreme comes in. It's a beautifully packaged 25 track, double CD debut album. It takes stones and/or a huge amount of money to produce a debut of that size. Or maybe sometimes the money gives you stones, makes your own tiny rocks heavier somehow. Who knows? I do know money when I see it though. And this album screams expense, through the deluxxe packaging. It suggests vanity project, from the minor song doctoring to the appearances of well known session hands such as Joey Waronker. But there is material on here that backs up the grandeur of such a release. Even the filler is bearable, crafted and breezy. Go, as the Americans say, figure.

It's a crisp, happy, Neo-LA rock album. Everything is polished and smoothed in some way, not unlike a mixture of Steely Dan and Beck (the anally retentive reader will enjoy the subtle nod to the Very Best of Steely Dan in the cover shot). Vocals alternate between deep, rich and low, to high and lilting. Always beautifully harmonized when appropriate. And through both discs, little highlights emerge, through the lyrics and the musical delivery. 'You Stood Me Up' is a perfect pop single about a "non-date event", and I know saying that is a cliche, but it's absolutely rock solid and sticks in your head for weeks; all keyboard hooks and wry digs with a massive chorus. 'Tight Tee Shirt' is more of the same, warm and slightly leery, lightweight pop. 'The Mummy', a tale of booking a band for the prom is just as good, slightly more rocking. Another excellent single choice, with a clever Eagles namecheck slotted in for extra feelgood vibes. Benji's happy-go-lucky stoner persona comes across in a likeable enough fashion.

But the highlight is the devastating, maudlin 'Love Is A Razor'. As a minimal counterpoint to all the happiness on offer, this squeezes a reaction to an entire double album into one song. As the opening lines sighs out via a tight, almost cracking voice "Love is a razor.... It's cold and it sharp...and it's cutting out hearts...that glow in the dark" over a slowly picked acoustic you sort of understand why he made the album in the first place. You can't leave that sort of pain in your system. It kills you, and any amount of money that it costs to get it out is worth it.

What baffles me about this album is why they'd put it out as a double after the festival season had ended. This is a Summer album, jammed with Summery singles. To put it out int the Autumn is weird, but if you've spent a lot of money on a record and need to recoup, I suppose any release is a good release. In my fantasy life as a music impressario, I'd reissue as a single disc set (which is entirely possible, as both discs run relatively short) and get him to hit every festival they can next year, and put out You Stood Me Up as the first single. Maybe he'll pick up another band, tour, then hit the festivals. Probably the latter. We'll see.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Let's step into the time machine and see what happens

I've submitted a couple of things to DiS recently that would seem unlikely to see the light of day.
Yesterday I finished a Mercury Rev review, which was a little confused. Realistically, because it wasn't as crisp and concise as it could have been, and because the album is two months old, it isn't going to go up if they've got something better in the pipeline. Which I'm OK with, to be frank.

So I'm keeping that in the bag to put out on here. I'm doing the same with a review of the Girl Talk album. Today I'm writing up a Threatmantics review and taking notes on an excellent 4CD Northern Soul compilation. I'm also reading the 'Your guide to working at Debenhams' staff handbook. It's a page turner. Already I'm hoping for the sequel.

*Should* have scored review tickets for a show on the 19th. But I'm keeping that off the record, on the QT, and very strictly hush-hush. For now at least.