Thursday, January 24, 2013

Albums of 2012 # 5: Jack White – Blunderbuss

You always know exactly what you’re going to get with Jack White. That’s one of the things I like most about him. He isn’t everyone’s cup of tea though, and over the past few years I’ve been sensing a subtle backlash against White and his retro-styling.

It seems that from the time the White Stripes formally announced a split in the wake of White’s wanderings – both “solo” and within new projects – his whole relationship with the music press somehow has changed. The man once heralded as a genius, and the most important artist of the first decade of the new millennium (by at least one major UK-based music mag), is now, according to some, nothing less than a fake and an imposter. I’m really not sure what has changed? Jack certainly hasn’t.
White’s default modus operandi has always been to mine the past for all it’s worth. We’ve seen it with the Stripes’ version of edgy crossover blues-rock, with the Raconteurs’ take on classic rock, and we’ve seen it most recently with the Dead Weather “side-project”, a raw variation on each of the above. And he does it again on Blunderbuss, his 2012 offering, a solo affair … (well, all of the White Stripes albums were essentially solo affairs too, but let’s just go with it for now).
From the opening flurry of the antique keyboard on the album opener ‘Missing Pieces’ right on through to the fading harmonies at the tail end of the closer ‘Take Me With You When You Go’, we’re transported into White’s world. A world where pre-owned can be presented as new without the aid of software. A world where rock rules, and if the guitar isn’t already actually king yet, then that’s only because the terrific wordsmithery has long since laid claim to any metaphorical throne.

White’s storytelling takes us on a series of short, sharp journeys to places we’d otherwise tend to forget about. Dark places. Places that more often than not feature eccentric people, outsiders, lost souls, and fringe dwellers … sometimes even Jack in the third person. All the while providing us with musical recall of where it all stems from, reminders of the various strands that have fed this thing we call rock music. Jack White is nothing if not a past master of achieving that.

And naturally, we also get the now regulation excursion into country – slide guitar, fiddle – on several songs. At 13 tracks over the course of 41 minutes, there’s a nice balance about the album, and it succeeds in feeling both familiar and fresh.
The album’s best track, ‘Love Interruption’, is a part confessional founded primarily on an electric piano, an acoustic guitar, and a barely repressed sense of anger. Whatever else “love” means, Jack just wants to feel it with brutal intensity. None of this safe, comfort zone stuff for him. A plea for pain, lust, hurt, revenge … and no little amount of murderous intent. You know – all of the usual things one normally associates with love (!) … and in turn, the track represents the very essence of everything there is to love about Jack White, all wrapped up in a two-and-a-half minute burst.

Other highlights include ‘Missing Pieces’, ‘Sixteen Saltines’, ‘Freedom At 21’, and ‘Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy’ … but there are no duds on Blunderbuss, just variety, and a few timely reminders of a far less complicated world.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Albums of 2012 # 6: Chromatics – Kill For Love

I’ll admit to being a bit of a latecomer to the music of Chromatics, with the 2012 album, Kill For Love, being the band’s fourth full-length studio effort, but the first to attract my attention.

When I first heard Kill For Love I was convinced it was going to be my album of the year, or at the very least something close to it. I get a bit excitable like that sometimes.

Then I decided it maybe wasn’t quite as good as I first thought, that it was probably about two or three lengthy tracks too long, and that it had too much of the dreaded “filler” content.

In truth, at 17 tracks and over 90 minutes in length, you actually get two really good albums packaged up as one.

Hailing from Portland, Oregon, Chromatics started life as a punk-orientated four-piece around 2001, but by 2005, only guitarist Adam Miller remained from the original quartet, and the band’s sound had softened considerably. From all accounts, the catalyst for the move to a more radio-friendly sound appears to have been the arrival of vocalist Ruth Radelet, and that of talented multi-instrumentalist Johnny Jewel (of label and tour-mates Glass Candy).

The album is such an eclectic mix of influences and styles it is difficult to pigeonhole the band. While the post-punk markers are obvious; dark challenging lyrics, chiming guitar, waves of synth, it lacks the directness and brevity usually associated with the genre. It feels widescreen and sprawling, in a good way. And to tag it as prototype indie* or post-punk is a little at odds with the sheer variety of instrumentation on offer (a lot of piano/keys, see cello at the start of ‘The Eleventh Hour’ etc).

I’m generally not a fan of autotune and/or the vocoder, but use of it on a couple of the more woozy atmospheric tracks on Kill For Love works well. I suspect this is the voice of Jewel, with Radelet taking care of vocals on the majority of tracks. It also gives the album a very contemporary feel, a modern twist on what is otherwise essentially a quite retro-flavoured album. Elsewhere, Radelet sings in a very nonchalant fashion, like she’s not particularly interested, or couldn’t care less. This creates a sense of distance, a lazy ambience, making it feel a little other-worldly in places.

Chromatics on stage 2012
But what really gives Kill For Love its pop sheen is the album’s glossy production, which is credited to the band itself, but if Glass Candy’s work is anything to go by, I think Jewel must have played the leading role in the studio. It never sounds anything less than immaculate, every track fastidiously pored over to create exactly the right mood.

One of the real highlights of Kill For Love is ‘Into The Black’, a cover of the Neil Young classic ‘Hey Hey My My’, which opens proceedings. Kicking off your breakthrough album with a cover of one of Rock’s definitive moments is a risky business, but these guys do it well, and it is testimony to the band’s self-belief that they would even consider such a stunt in the first place.

Other highpoints on the album include the title track, plus ‘Lady’, ‘The Page’, ‘Candy’, ‘Birds Of Paradise’, and ‘The River’. I’m not so convinced by the 14-minute album closer ‘No Escape’ though, which just sort of fades in and out without really going anywhere.

Overall, Kill For Love is a great album, and I can’t wait to see where Chromatics take things from here.

* Renowned indie streaming/download site Indie Shuffle rated Kill For Love as that site’s No.1 album of the year.

Here’s ‘Lady’ ... judge for yourself:

… and a non album track, featuring Ida No (of Glass Candy), a cover of the New Order classic, ‘Ceremony’:

Friday, January 18, 2013

Albums of 2012 # 7: Delilah - From The Roots Up

2012 was great year for female solo artists. Jessie Ware, Claire Boucher (Grimes), Natasha Khan (Bat For Lashes), Regina Spektor, Cat Power, and Lana Del Rey, are just a few of the more prominent names to gain both critical acclaim and/or commercial plaudits for their album releases during the year.

Some we knew a little bit about before, but others, not so much. Cue perhaps an awkward acknowledgement that Adele’s grip on the pop charts – over what is now a THREE year period – may have been a contributing factor to any perceived opening of the floodgates.

And flying a little further under the radar we had Paloma Ayana Stoecker – aka Delilah – a prodigiously talented 22-year-old singer/songwriter with a breathy vocal, who released arguably the strongest set of songs of all in the form of her album From The Roots Up. An album that was pretty much conspicuous by its absence on the multitude of other more renowned blog year-end lists.

But that, of course, doesn’t mean it wasn’t any good. At one point mid-year I just couldn’t get enough of this album (as I said in my review here) … an obsession that passed eventually, but not before it had provided the soundtrack to a large chunk of my obligatory mid-winter blues.

In recent months however, I’ve moved on, and the thought of listening to it again holds very little appeal. I made a copy for my 15-year-old daughter and suggested she might like it.

That’s as it should be … despite my bravado about pop music being non age specific, it was never really an album for a 40-something bloke. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t appreciate it for what it was ... something close to an unheralded pop masterpiece.

For the record, my daughter loves it – for its themes, for its of-the-minute relevance, for its sense of teenage angst, but I suspect she loves it mostly because, as a student of music herself, the album is nothing short of being a compositional work of art.

And of course it probably helps – from her perspective – that Delilah’s roots are firmly planted in the dubstep camp!

(That said, From The Roots Up is NOT a dubstep album. I suspect if Delilah had wanted to go down that path she would have called upon genre heavyweights Chase & Status, the outfit that helped launch her career in the first place).

Here’s Breathe:

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Albums of 2012 # 8: Adrian Sherwood – Survival And Resistance

I think I called this one correctly in my original review (here) ... this is an album that improves significantly with repeat listening. So much so, it became a permanent fixture on my pod during the last couple of months of the year.

I really wasn’t sure what to make of it at first. It felt strange and experimental. It didn’t feel much like the Adrian Sherwood I’ve come to know and love over the course of nearly three decades. But I should never have doubted him; Survival and Resistance will eventually reveal all of its hidden charms only if you’re prepared to listen closely enough and persevere.

I returned to it many times, and each time I did, I discovered something new, something fresh, something I hadn’t noticed previously. More often than not it was only something very small; it might be a background noise, a few bleeps, a slice of reverb, or any number of the myriad of dubby FX Sherwood specialises in. They’re always practically impossible to catch first time around. But sure enough, it’s the small things that form the greater whole, and in the end that whole amounted to a damn fine album. Indeed, testimony to the age-old adage that “thou shalt not review too soon” …

(okay, I just made that last bit up … but it nevertheless acts as a default rule very much in sync with everythingsgonegreen’s lazy arse lack of focus when it comes to brand new releases).

No doubt that Survival And Resistance was one of the more “eccentric” albums I listened to and absorbed during 2012, but ultimately, also one of the very best.

Here's a taster: U R Sound (with Timothy Leary and unknown hippy chick sharing um, vocals ...):

Albums of 2012 # 9: Metric – Synthetica

Confession time: I’ve always reserved a special place in my heart for that guilty pleasure otherwise known as synthpop. No matter how sugary, how cheesy, or how blatantly commercial it may be, give me a half decent synthpop album to listen to, and your author instantly transforms into a very happy boy indeed.

Given that my formative pop music listening years coincided with the first wave of synthpop - Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, Gary Numan et al - I guess that none of the above should come as any great surprise. Those earliest musical influences can be very hard to shift from the psyche.

And in 2012 it would seem that the genre was very much alive and well. Some would even say it was thriving. Whether it was the retro styles of Hot Chip, the aggressive synthrave of Crystal Castles, the more offbeat variation as presented by Grimes, or this, Synthetica, the fifth studio album by Canadian four piece Metric, it felt like a fresh synthpop fix was never too far away during the year under review.

I’ve followed the work of Metric for a number of years now, with the 2009 album Fantasies also being one of the best albums of its year (according to me, obviously). Fantasies is certainly the release that tends to get the credit for providing the band with its most sustained commercial breakthrough, albeit a relatively minor breakthrough in big picture terms. I’m not really sure whether or not Synthetica will ultimately be recalled as a better overall album than Fantasies, but it feels like the band’s most consistent body of work yet, a better collection of songs, and an album void of anything in the way of obvious filler.

The voice of Emily Haines is pivotal to everything Metric does. Haines has a great vocal range – from gravelly and vulnerable, to silky smooth and assured – and on Synthetica we get a masterclass vocal performance from the ex-Broken Social Scenester. Right from the opening lines on album opener ‘Artificial Nocturne’ (... “I’m just as fucked up as they say, I can't fake the daytime, found an entrance to escape into the dark” ...) Haines grabs each track by the scruff, every word utterly believable, every song a short journey into the shadowy and frequently tumultuous world of Metric.

Musically a lot of Synthetica is synthpop-by-numbers (perhaps the clue is in the title) – glossy, lush, and often multi-layered, but where the band really excel is in the art of creating great pop hooks. Just as Haines wears her heart on her sleeve, the band itself is not afraid to present an unrepentantly commercial front. Even without its warm electronic vibe, even if those layers of synth were stripped away, there would still be a fairly formidable power-pop core right at the very heart of this album.

And while that might seem a little too conventional and possibly even a bit retro for some in 2012, it certainly isn’t anything to be ashamed of. Not when it is done this well.

Highlights: ‘Artificial Nocturne’, ‘Youth Without Youth’, ‘Speed The Collapse’, and ‘Breathing Under Water’ ... look out too for the appearance of Lou Reed on the less impressive ‘The Wanderlust’.

Here's 'Artificial Nocturne':

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Albums of 2012 # 10: Dead Can Dance - Anastasis

My only other reference point for the music of Dead Can Dance is the 2005 ‘very best of’ release, Memento. That album is of course a compilation of more than two decades worth of peaks, so as far as benchmarking levels go it’s a fairly lofty height to live up to.

As far back as the early Eighties Dead Can Dance always seemed to be one of those “bands” skirting around the periphery of stuff I liked – think, say, 4AD stablemates This Mortal Coil/Cocteau Twins for an immediate marker. Yet I never really formed a particularly strong bond with anything they released at the time, or indeed, over time. A copy of Memento would seem like more than enough for the casual fan; all I’d need, a representative work, and an acknowledgement of their existence. Surely?

Well, yes, but then none of the above accounts for DCD’s capacity for pleasant surprises. For an ability to conjure up something special, a belated swansong even, when least expected …

Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard’s decision to reform and collaborate on a new album – 2012’s Anastasis – some 16 years after the release of the duo’s last album of new material under the Dead Can Dance moniker was, even in this age of nostalgia overload, a major surprise.

For Anastasis to then go on and become one of more impressive albums of the year speaks volumes about how productive and far reaching that “comeback” has been. Rather fittingly, I’m told that the album’s title (Greek) can be loosely translated to mean “rebirth” (or something akin to that). No question they got that bit right.

It also led to a hugely busy year for the duo, with an extensive tour across North America and Europe throughout the northern hemisphere autumn, a trip that even scheduled a gig in the troubled hot spot that is Lebanon (Beirut).

Not that Anastasis is a dramatic departure from anything DCD has offered us previously, and Perry and Gerrard clearly haven’t set out to reinvent the wheel; what worked before still works. As always we get a highly unique variation on what most of us would call goth – part classical or neo classical, part pop, part world music … but it’s never anything less than 100% arty and always true to the duo’s dark roots.

If anything, the album feels like a slight progression on DCD’s tried and trusted forms. Maybe it is just better technology all these years on, but there’s a real depth to Perry’s carefully crafted sound collages that I’d not noticed before, and Gerrard’s heavenly vocal remains as rich as ever.

If there’s a downside it’s that some of the lyrics feel a little awkward at times, shop-worn or a little cliché even. Listen too carefully and you’ll doubtlessly find a couple of cringeworthy moments. Perry and Gerrard share vocal duties, seldom together, Perry’s strengths being the darker tracks, with Gerrard practically flawless on the more eastern flavoured or world music styled tracks.
Highlights: the string drenched opener ‘Children of the Sun’, a sweeping epic to kick things off. ‘Amnesia’, which lopes along harmlessly before slowly revealing the darker themes at its core. And while the old-worldly Celtic textures of ‘Return of the She-King’ also resonate strongly with me, the real jewel on the album is ‘Opium’, a beautifully constructed masterpiece featuring a great vocal from Perry; Goth 101 … and a lot more besides (link below).

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Reflections on 2012

So long 2012 … you won’t be missed. I don’t know about you, but by the time the New Year rolled around, I was pretty pleased to see the back end of 2012. On a personal level, thanks mainly to a series of events far too surreal and complex to go into here, the calendar year just gone turned out to be a very sobering period in more ways than one.

But time off over the New Year usually serves as chance for some reflection, or at the very least it presents us with clearly defined parameters to mentally box up events, to label that box “last year”, and to stick it up on the shelf reserved for “the past”.

Presumably we all now move forward into a bright new future, reinvigorated by hope, or driven to redemption by a new set of life affirming resolutions!

Or something.

In terms of music, my music consumption, and my exposure to new music, I am however happy to report that it feels like 2012 has been one of those bumper years. I discovered and listened to so much great music through the calendar year - new and old, covering a wide range of genres and styles, I really couldn’t have asked for more.

And I’ve really enjoyed having so much more access to new stuff than ever before. That also means I’ve had to wade through a lot more shit than ever before in order to find the stuff I like. Such is the new way of things … every silver lining has a cloud etc.

2012 certainly saw me buying less CDs than I have for several decades. And I experienced a yearning for long lost vinyl (now far more obtainable) in a way that I never have previously. But mostly I settled for new albums in a digital/mp3 file format to sate the compulsive need I had to hear as much music as humanely (sic) possible across a 12 month period. And yes, I know about the compression thing and other issues surrounding sound quality with mp3 files, but it’s a format that is portable, and that’s just what works for me as someone who consumes music on the move.

Given that state of affairs, 2012 being a top year for music and all that, you may have thought I’d have blogged a little more than I have done. 49 posts across a 52-week period, at just less than one post per week. So if everythingsgonegreen has an obvious tailor made resolution for 2013, it simply has to be to improve that productivity ratio, even if only by the smidgen required to take it over the most immediate post-per-week goal. We’ll see …

I had wanted to blog a little bit more about movies I saw through the year – the best of which was undoubtedly ‘Searching For Sugar Man’, but I never quite got around to expanding the blog’s horizons into areas I’d intended. Maybe in 2013?

I did manage to post a book review, looking at 'Last Night A DJ Saved My Life' (here), but I wasn’t really sure whether or not any of the other books I read through the year were of interest to anyone else. For the record, Howard Marks’ autobiography ‘Mr Nice’ was a challenging and at times exhausting read, Irvine Welsh’s belated ‘Trainspotting’ prequel, ‘Skagboys’, was everything it promised to be on the cover, and I finally caught up with Craig Marriner’s award-winning ‘Stonedogs’ (2001), a plunge into the murky underbelly of New Zealand bogan (and gang) culture. Good reads all, although given some of the remarkable tales he had to tell, the Marks life story offered too much in the way of detail and not enough by way of entertainment.

I’m also a little bit behind the blogger eight-ball on things like compiling/revealing annual lists, awards, and the other sort of year-end what-have-yous and what-nots you see on other more reputed blogs at this time of year. Hell, half of them are presenting tracks and album of the year lists by early to mid December.

We clearly prefer to do things in a far more orderly and considered fashion here at everythingsgonegreen towers. Truth be told, I’ve been far too busy absorbing new stuff to worry about much else. Far less compiling lists and ranking what is effectively another person’s work of art. As for sitting down and writing about it, well, who can even contemplate such a notion during the month of mayhem otherwise known as December?

As the opening few days of 2013 now provide a reprieve from some of life’s other pressures, I’ll do what I did last year with albums, and present something akin to a ten “best of” as heard in my house during 2012; the only prerequisite for an album to qualify for the list being that I own it (or owned it during the 12 months under review). That list of ten has been mentally compiled, and I’ll reveal it – at a leisurely pace – with a few words on each album, through January. Watch this space.