Thursday 1 July 2010

Smell the mothballs?

This blog's been quiet a long time, ain't it?

It's probably going to stay that way.

I don't guarantee my silence (hell, I can't make any promises), but I'm just not really feeling this whole music-reviewing shebang, these days.

Thanks for sticking with me, though. It's lovely of you.

If you'd care to follow my online ramblings elsewhere, though, may I point you in the direction of my rambling, thematically bereft, focus-free personal blog, the Intellectual Hooligan?

… and, as of quite-recently, my design and copywriting blog, in which I strive for a slightly (slightly) more focused and businesslike tone.

Once again, thank you for your perusal of Heavy Soil's reviews – and for your tolerance of that hideous mothbally ponk. It's been spesh. Adieu.

Tuesday 6 October 2009

Review: The Life Of The World To Come by The Mountain Goats

Of Beginnings

A bassy, palm-muted, minimalist acoustic guitar. Dabbings of bass drum and an occasional hissing, rattling hi-hat. The Life Of The World To Come by The Mountain Goats starts brilliantly. Lyrically, the opening is similarly strong:

I became a crystal healer
and my ministry was to the sick
creeping vines would send out runners
and seek me in their numbers
I sold self-help tapes
Go down to the netherworld, plant grapes

It's been a while since my attention was so rapaciously grabbed by the first few bars of an album. And the first song ('1 Samuel 15:23') is, I'd say, pretty much faultless. An intense, enigmatic lyrical voice. Sparse instrumentation extremely skilfully recorded and superbly produced. Brooding, ominous. Unshakeably it establishes a thickly pervasive atmosphere for the entire record. Sets (if you will) the stage. It's as good an opener as 'Airbag' is to ok computer.

And that's good.

So – how about you download an mp3 of 1 Samuel 15:23 by the Mountain Goats? Come back when you're done, won't you?

Of Good Music

Good music means something to its producers. It's not just spewed out from refinery to factory to outlet.

Good music demands; it communicates. Expresses.

And The Life Of The World To Come is the most interesting album I've listened to since Bill Callahan's Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle. World To Come isn't as clever (from a literary point of view, or with respect to its songcraft) as Eagle. But it's cleverer than most. And, in common with Callahan's record, it is saturated with powerful, intense, thoroughly sincere emotion.

Now, Heavy Soil doesn't know about you, but Heavy Soil grows immensely tired of the capriciously ironical 'whimsy' and trendily self-aware posturing that dominates the alternative/folkish musical genres.

So a bit of emotional saturation goes down very well with us.

Of Versatility

Musically, the early stages of the record demonstrate a good deal of versatility: the sparseness of the opener gives way (excellently) to the spitting, pulsing, juddering momentum of 'Psalms 40:2'. As the album progresses, there's less pronounced contrast between songs (a pity), but musical imaginativeness is evident in some lovely string arrangements (don't expect swooning orchestral lines: these are sparse, dry, intelligent.)

And one of the most commendable of the features on display is musical restraint. Download an mp3 of the lovely Hebrews 11:40, won't you? Notice the point (around 2:20) at which the arrangement swells toward a climax, only to pull back at the last moment.


Of themes
(always the most boring and obvious part of an English essay, so I'll keep it short)

The Life Of The World To Come is, conceptually, a very tight album. It is unified by clear and consistent themes – the clearest of which (revealed by a single glance at the 100% biblical tracklisting) is religion/faith. We'll come back to this later – you bet.

Less overtly, the songs are bound together by strands of imagery (cars, sickness, the domestic) and feeling (detachment, introspection, passivity). This is a very cohesive piece of work. And imbuing the whole record is a narrative (played out without linearity) of death and bereavement.

Of theological wrangling

So, it's going pretty well, so far. You'll be surprised then, perhaps, to discover that The Life Of The World To Come has nevertheless been giving me – your beloved reviewer – some trouble.

'Romans 10:9' is the crux of it. Without ado, here's the chorus:

If you will believe in your heart
And confess with your lips
Surely you will be saved one day

Uh huh.

Now, my review-writing muse – an enigmatic character known only as FieldVole – was pretty down on this. She called it 'Praise music'. And, in isolation, that's a criticism (and boy did she mean it as a criticism…) I cannot counter. I don't much like pop songs of the ilk implied by those lyrics above. It reminds me of awful freshers' week experiences. Christian Rock.

But hold on a minute. Wasn't it TS Eliot that wrote –

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death

– and suchlike? Yes, it was indeed. Of course, there's no comparison between the two in terms of poetry (Eliot's lines are brilliantly written); but it's clear enough that Eliot (along with many, many other poets and novelists whom I admire) produce work that explicitly deals with Christian faith and the issues surrounding it.

So I should be clear: I have absolutely no problem with art – be it a poem, a song or a painting – that's created from an explicitly religious perspective. I would never decry a creative work because it was written from a Christian perspective. 'Ash Wednesday' (from which those above lines of Eliot's are quoted) is one of my favourite poems.

The problem with 'Romans 10:9', though, is that it is bland. Not only lyrically, but also musically (over to FieldVole again, who crushingly pointed out the song's slight whiff of 'keyboard demo'. Ouch.) And so much else on this album is far from bland. Indeed, 'Romans' is so bland that, on my first few listens, I didn't even notice it. And was preparing myself to write a resoundingly positive review of the album.

Then FieldVole came in with her 'Praise Music' jibes. And I had to think again.

There's a defence (of course there's a defence: there's always a defence). Here's the chorus of 'Philippians 3:20-21':

Nice people say he has gone home to God now
Safe in his arms, safe in his arms
But the voices of the angels singing to him in his last hours with us:
Smoke alarms. Smoke alarms.

The idea is, then, that we're being led through a series of perspectives on questions of faith. The 'Smoke alarms' is our moment of camera-panning-out-to-an-empty-room objectivity. The grounding. It's like the end of Lord of the Flies (the novel, yeh?), at which we see the warring boys suddenly and powerfully through the eyes of the first and only adult in the novel.

A WHOOOMP-type moment.

So this treatment of faith – at once exploratory and sceptical – gives us a cue to take a song like 'Romans 10:9' (the bland one, right? I know: all these biblical names may make for conceptual unity, but they're bloody confusing) as just representative of one perspective. One voice. It's not supposed (I assume) to be preachy.

Problem is, it's just not a particularly convincing song. Sorry.

Of Non-Blandness

But I want to return to this: there are some truly superb things on this record. And let it be indicative of my overall feeling that I choose to close on this note.

First off, the album's final song, 'Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy Of Grace', is brilliant. It draws together the themes and imagery (it seems to me) in an almost faultless way. And it's musically sparse, haunting, atmospheric. A mirror image of the opening.

And, finally, let's talk about 'Matthew 25:21', which I'd take to be the record's core. It charts the journey of the narrator for a last visit to a terminally ill person (a relative, we presume). The first time I listened to the album, I was not prepared for the intensity of this song – and the degree to which, by the time it played, my attention had been transfixed. Emotionally, it is sparingly effective. And lyrically. Lyrically, it is very, very good. Here's the best bit of the whole album. Right here:

I felt all the details
Carving out space in my head
Tropicanas on the walkway
Neon red.

This is fucking excellent. Absolutely superb. It's why I love literature. Because it simply, elegantly, unfussily describes a sensation that is both complex and 100% familiar and convincing: in this instance, the foreknowledge of nostalgia to come.

If only this kind of lyrical pellucidity could carry through to those small islets of blandness. That's all I want to say.

Monday 7 September 2009

Self-promotion: new Cogwheel Dogs EP out today

Dear blogreaders, may I open with an apology: this blog has been a bit quiet, lately. The desertification is, however, soon to be reversed – with a verdant influx of music: I've a review or two on the boil (amuse-bouche: the new Mountain Goats album looks to be very, very worthwhile indeed).

But for today, I have a little ardent self-promotion to be getting on with.

The band in which I play cello (variously referred to as 'laser cello', 'distortion cello' or 'is that a cello?') is called Cogwheel Dogs. And we have released an EP today, entitled Greenhorn.

The music? It's folksy art-grunge, in a nutshell. Or maybe experimento chamber-blues. Who can say?

The EP might clock in at less than 15 minutes, but there’s a hell of a lot crammed in here. The twin forces of Mosley’s bewitching voice - which can go from little girl lost to demented she-devil like the flick of a switch (often in the space of the same song) - and Parnell’s unrestrained, ultra-distorted cello are the band‘s strongest weapons. On opening song ‘Kitchen’, the two combine to create a sinister, menacing atmosphere that hangs around Greenhorn like a morning fog that won‘t quite lift.

The EP starts off with an egg slicer and ends with saliva on an envelope. The in-between? Download it (for free, for free, for free) for yourself and make up your own mind.

Here's the linky to the whole of Greenhorn EP (zip file), and here are the individual tracks as mp3s:

Like? Subscribe to the Cogwheel Dogs blog for future updates.

That's it. Self-promotion over. I'll get back to writing about other people's stuff, now.

Saturday 15 August 2009

Chromatic crunches and mathematical modernism from Thelonius Monk via Hisae Nakajima

I picked up the video below thanks to Mr Craig of Flickering Too Long. It's a cover of Thelonious Monk's Ruby, My Dear by Hisae Nakajima.

I like a lot of things about this. The way the cycle-of-fifths-type chord sequence is so mussed up and clouded with chromaticism upon chromaticism – but still clearly discernable, anchored by the weighty bass.

It made me think of Bach (the almost mathematical intelligence of the writing – a factor whose appeal I can clearly see to one such as Mr Craig, rather an enviably mathematically intelligent musician himself) and, at the same time, Modernist literature like that of Eliot and Joyce (whom I'm always bloody well writing about, I know), in the sense of adding gnarled complexity and surprise to a superficially familiar outline.

Somebody will probably call that pretentious, won't they? That'd be imaginative of them.

I'm not even remotely knowledgable about jazz – so risk sounding like a pillock whenever I write about it (some would contest that I risk sounding like a pillock whenever I write about anything; others, no doubt, that to call this a 'risk' is hugely underplaying its probability). So I'll confine myself to a few highlights.

The opening minute – all those crunches, with an almost impossible number of semitone clashes almost-resolving themselves yet in the process setting up further clashes to be almost-resolved.

3.20 – superb. Amidst the deliberate thorniness comes a sunbeam of nonchalant triple-time.

... And I love the way it finishes off like fucking Rachmaninov on acid. Thank you, Mr Craig.

Saturday 18 July 2009

Record Companies Are Fuckwits

I know – you're still reeling from the headline, aren't you? You're thinking, 'Whoa, hold on there, Heavy Soil! Hold on ONE MINUTE! I love record companies. They've done nothing but good in this world, and I personally owe them a great debt of gratitude. What's more, they are run by people with unimpeachable ethics, boundless altruism and Solomon-esque wisdom. So WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU SAYING?'

So, yes. Okay. Record companies aren't exactly a difficult target. And plenty of people have written about exactly how stupid have been their strategies over the past decade or so.

Y'know. Suing fans, that kind of thing.

So what I'm saying isn't new.

It isn't scythingly iconoclastic. But I'm a bit pissed off, so indulge me, won't you?

If you're a frequentish visitor, you may remember that we rather liked Jarvis Cocker's latest album. Not, perhaps, to the point of pant-soiling paroxysms – but at least to the point of overenthusiastic nods and weird approbatory throat noises.

(Which is a good bit more than some get, I might add.)

Anyhow, we ran up to our review of ol' Jarv's new release with a post about its lead single, the fabulous 'Angela'. We were unequivocally positive. Our prose practically dripped with admiration (which looks a little like treacle, incidentally).

But we made a terrible, terrible mistake.

We included a downloadable mp3 of 'Angela'.

Now, let's set aside the fact that, as a single released in advance of the album, the prime purpose of Angela was to promote Further Complications. Let's set aside the fact that it's now downloadable on ANY torrent site you'd care to mention. Let's set aside the fact that THE MP3 ITSELF WAS DISTRIBUTED FREE OF CHARGE BY COCKER'S RECORD LABEL.

Yes, let's set all those things aside, shall we? Shove 'em into a cupboard and lean on the bulging door til it's forced shut. Because, yeh, fair enough: it's not my music. And, as a music-maker myself (though, I might add, one not so fortunate as to receive a salary for my makings) I respect the owners of creative works. For the most part, I don't like illegal downloading (though I don't see any sensible means by which to prevent it).

So, had Jarv's record company contacted me with a request to take down the mp3, I'd have done so. I'd still have thought they were bloody stupid, mind, because WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF A SINGLE (especially one you have GIVEN AWAY FREE) IF NOT TO DRIVE ALBUM SALES? But I'd have respected their request and carried it out immediately.

Instead, I received a legal notice – in confoundingly difficult language – informing me that my post infringed copyright. Fair doos. It also informed me that my post had been removed by Blogger, the service on which this blog is hosted (for the moment).

And, sure enough, it has totally gone. It's not been 'unpublished' and left as a draft for me to review and amend. It's not had the mp3 removed. It's been destroyed. Eliminated. Exterminated.

Nothing remains.

Considering the fact that the sentiments of the piece were so glowing, and that its gist was clearly 'this is a great track, let's all get excited about the album', it seems pretty fucking churlish (AND BRAIN-WOBBLINGLY, TONGUE-LOLLINGLY STUPID) to crack down on it as if it were a 5-part instruction manual on DIY biological terrorism.

Record companies, if you're listening (you're so, so clearly not, are you? You still read fucking NME, I imagine): wise up. You are dying. And, as you die, I – and legions of bloggers like me – are laughing at your spasmodic thrashings.

It could have been so different.

Monday 6 July 2009

The Ben Folds Bastard Effect

1 solemn face.

After a week of having my ears assailed by monstrous amounts of compression (and not for the first time), I thought a sonic palate-cleanser would be in order.

You see, when I review a record for Heavy Soil, I listen to it a lot. I listen to it on my iPod – on trains and pavements and (occasionally) in my workplace, in a vain attempt to insulate myself from the hubbub of competing telephone conversations in a too-small office. I listen to it hoofing out of my Denon stereo. And, best of all, I listen to it on ludicrously (to some) expensive headphones, lying in bed, the only illumination the cyan of my alarm-clock radio (which, incidentally, has FUCKING STOPPED WORKING AFTER ONLY 6 MONTHS.)

... And, by the time I come to write the review, my spongey brain is sopping. Pretty much saturated with the music in question. Sometimes, it's like being saturated with Champagne. Others, like being saturated with less pleasant liquid.

And perhaps that's why the posts on Heavy Soil always end up so goddamn long. Because I'm trying to wring my brain dry of all that music.

Sometimes, I almost hate writing reviews. I know: weep for me.

Why in the name of Beelzebub are you telling me all this?

Fair question. I suppose in an attempt to convey the degree to which posting an album review on Heavy Soil is like bursting from a dank and fetid tunnel into glorious, airy, sunlit countryside. All of a sudden, I am free to listen to whatever I like.

And what I liked was this:

Ah – Mr Folds ...

You may remember that Heavy Soil was no admirer of Ben Folds' latest solo album, the childishly narcissistic and spitefully misogynous Way To Normal.

It was, therefore, a palate cleanser in more ways than one to return to Whatever & Ever Amen – released in 1997, back when Ben Folds was still plural. 'One Angry Dwarf' is definitely one of my favourite songs on the album (alongside the fantastic 'Kate') – and what an album opener. It grabs, dear reader, it grabs. It holds. It shakes.

It's also refreshingly unproduced. The album was recorded in a house rented by Folds, and is free of studio-induced ubercompression and innumerable overdubs.

Anyhow, it got me thinking

Specifically, thinking about musicians' perceived personality. You see, before listening to Way To Normal, I'd tended to assume that Ben Folds was a pretty decent sort of chap. Perhaps a touch irritating at times – but extremely likable. Way To Normal radically changed that perception. It left me thinking that, actually, Mr Folds might just be a bit of a twat. And an unpleasant one, at that.

And, since then, I haven't fancied listening to Ben Folds (Five) once. Until now. So that's 9-10 months of abstinence from a band/artist to which I'd previous listened frequently.

That's a pretty considerable effect.

I can't imagine that an album that was simply bad would've had this kind of effect. Sure, there'd've been disappointment; maybe a touch of disillusionment, were the artist in question to be one I'd hallowed as reliable. But not wholesale avoidance.

It seems pretty clear, then, that there's a degree to which my liking for an artist is connected to my conception of his or her personality.

I don't actually think this should be the case, from the perspective of critical integrity. It's my view that one should review product, not producer. But I'm pretty sure it is the case, nevertheless.

I should add: this doesn't mean that I must like an artist's personality before liking their music. There're plenty of musicians whom I either know or suspect to suffer from various character flaws, and this doesn't necessarily affect my opinion of their music.

Instead, it seems to have something to do with betrayal. Because I'd previously extrapolated a personality for Ben Folds on the evidence of his work pre-Way To Normal, the sudden revelation of misanthropic-Folds was deeply disconcerting and repellent.

Whereas if I'd thought from the beginning that the guy was a bastard, I reckon I'd just have thought, 'That was a pretty crap album' and had done with it.

What do you reckon, then, soilers? Am I a weirdo? Or have you experienced similar feelings yourselves? Oh com[m]e[nt], all ye faithful.

Monday 29 June 2009

Review: Far by Regina Spektor

I always worry when I'm writing a review of an album and I find myself saying 'tracks' instead of 'songs'.

Regina Spektor's new album, Far, has – I'm sorry to say – tracks.

So, this is how this is going to go.

First, I'm going to rant for a while about the production of this album. Then, once I'm puce and quivering, with dilated pupils and bubblettes of saliva flecking my lip, I'll take a subhead-break and write about the music. Because, dressed up as tracks though they may be, there are some lovely songs mewling and scrabbling, trapped within.

So let's rescue the poor critters.

But first…

Those of you who've followed Heavy Soil for a while will (I hope) realise that clever production techniques are very much Okay By Us. Heavy Soil certainly does not believe that all music should be lo-fi 4-track recordings of rattling plywood guitars and cheese-grater vocals captured by a Fisher Price microphone.

Because brilliant production makes Heavy Soil very happy.

But here's the problem with Far. Regina Spektor has worked, on this album, with people who are (no doubt) considered frigging top-notch arrangers. Frigging top-notch producers. Frigging top-notch session musicians. All the ingredients, one might suppose, of frigging top-notch production.

Indeed, Pitchfork, in its impressively wrong-headed review, has its own boringly brown-nosed paragraph lauding the skills of the 'four top-flight producers'.

Top-flight. Top-notch. Blah blah, lick lick, suck suck. Whatever.

All very well. But sometimes the top notch is smooth and symmetrical and perfectly machine-hewn.

Fucking boring, in other words. A big, smug, satisfied swot of a notch.

Sometimes, it's the top notch but one that we actually want.

Think about the old Regina song 'Poor Little Rich Boy': a left-hand piano line and a drumstick being lashed like a whip into a bar-stool. Name me one 'top-notch' arranger who'd think to do that.

No, they'd be too busy with their sumptuous string lines, telephoning their fellow top-notch arranger mates to brag about their wonderfully recherche brass section motifs.

You see, I don't want Regina Spektor's playing and arrangements to sound like Ben Folds + Tori Amos + Elton John + Fiona Apple. And I like all the aforementioned. But Regina plays piano in a totally different way. Not necessarily better. But different. So I don't want it to be dragged into line with the standard 'piano-based artist' sound.

Allow Heavy Soil to Let You Into A Secret

Because the thing with the big music industry is: it's enormously conservative. It far more reliably elevates those who perfect conventional arrangement/production than it does those who innovate. Regina Spektor is leagues more innovative than anybody she's worked with on this album. Leagues. And I don't care if I set a load of muso geeks and production obsessives flapping and whinging by saying it. I don't care how many great artists these people have worked with. Just like I don't care how many artists have banked at fucking HSBC.

Because, on Far, Regina Spektor has been tamed by a horde of collaborators whose talent is in no doubt, but whose influence is radically normalising.

And on this album, I see – clearly – the fingerprints of sweaty-palmed men who get off on the glossily sterile sound of a perfect hi-hat. Fetishistic production myopia. And, sure, the hi-hats kick ass. But in the same way as a trillion immaculately-processed hi-hats have kicked ass before.

And there's all this processed human beat-boxing. Regina is very, very good at her own (organic) brand of human beatbox. Listen to her doing it live and see what I mean. By using digital techniques to mimic this, her producers TOTALLY DESTROY THE POINT OF IT. Human beat box is all about imitating electronic percussion. So using electronic production techniques to imitate human beat box is staggeringly pointless. Perhaps somebody thought it was wittily ironic.

It's not. It's stupid.

And, on the subject of production techniques, another thing that really annoys: the fact that this record is mastered so loud that, at not-particularly-rare intervals, the music clips on my (120-pound) headphones. So the climactically loud parts are spoilt by those irritating hisses/rattles that occur when the volume has been pushed so hard that it actually overloads the speakers through which it's playing. This is massively, massively annoying. If I want my music louder, mastering-man, I'll sodding well turn up my volume. I don't need you raising the floor until my neck is bent 90 degrees and my head is pressed against the ceiling.

And, um – the good bits?

Okay, so I've been fairly down on the production, so far. In fact, there's some good stuff to say about it. Regina's voice is very nicely captured, sweet-toned and characterful. And, on some songs, the production is imaginative and colourful – 'Machine', for instance, in which industrial clunks and whirrs mesh with bit-crushed kit and treated vocals to good effect.

I'm still not convinced, mind, that I'd not have preferred it raw. But at least the production is taking the song somewhere, and doing it in an interesting, valid way. Even if it's spiritually pretty close to the (superior) 'Apres Moi' from Begin To Hope – crashingly Slavic chord sequence, hip-hop stylings and all.

But what if I imagine these were all acoustic recordings, shorn of glossy effects and processing? What, in other words, about the songs?

Some of them are very good indeed.

'Human of the Year' is probably the best. It's old-skool Regina – like 'Oedipus' (one of her very best), it is an embarrassment of thematic riches ... a song with about three potential choruses, none of which is milked to anything remotely approaching its capacity (meaning, to stretch a metaphor on my verbal rack, that instead of a pint of semi-skimmed, you end up with a few mouthfuls of Guernsey double cream.)

A pity, then, that somebody decided to whack in some wanky synths and gratuitous reverb (yes, I know the song mentions cathedrals. It's therefore the most fucking obvious production gimmick IN THE WORLD, EVER to add cathedral reverb onto the lead vocal. That's bloody Chris de Burgh territory, for Christ's sake).

Anyway, why don't you download an mp3 of Regina Spektor's Human of the Year and see if you agree with me?

Second track (yes, track) 'Eet', meanwhile, is enjoyable – though once again, I find myself unable to identify much in it that's not done at least as well in Begin To Hope (its equivalent on that record is probably 'On The Radio' – again, superior).

I'm not so convinced by the reggae-tinted album opening provided by 'The Calculation', which seems rather lite; nor by the frothy 'Folding Chair', which doesn't ever really transcend its (winkingly?) simplistic chord sequence. And, in all, I think there's less on this record that excites me from a songwriting point of view than on its predecessors. Of course, it's pretty hard to determine exactly to what degree this is down to production values that actively suppress pianistic innovation of the kind that's often my favourite aspect of Regina's music.

Then there are the vignettes. Take 'Genius Next Door'. Like others on the record, it's very affecting in places. But, to my ears, it doesn't especially benefit from the spangles of Disneyfication: reechoing reverb, glittering backing vocals, swooping strings. The vignette is more effective when dispensed casually. It lets a song shine (as this one should: it has a lovely melody) like an unexpected, unpolished pearl. Conversely, there's something about 'Big' production that endows songs like this with a grandiosity. Makes them seem as if they're Trying To Say Something. And I think that often undermines their power.

Have you noticed my problem, here, yet?

I try and write about the songs, but keep getting drawn back to the production. Because I really can't separate the two – so greatly does the latter seem to force its way into the former's territory.

If the songs on this album were to be released in a stripped-down, acoustic form, I suspect I'd gladly abandon in their favour all but two or three of these 'produced' versions.

But I suspect, too, that even then I'd not be calling 'Far' a triumph. Too many of these songs have their precedent in those on Begin To Hope – a record which far more successfully combined Big production with strong, original songwriting. Too few of them, taken as a whole, are exciting.

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