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.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Review: Dragonslayer by Sunset Rubdown

So – later this month, Sunset Rubdown release their new record, Dragonslayer.

My first acquaintance with Sunset Rubdown came in the form of their previous album, Random Spirit Lover. I still remember sitting on a dark coach (sadly, the petrol-propelled rather than horse-drawn variety) gazing at the smeared lights of London through a window lashed by the rain, with wildly cascading scales and arpeggios ringing in my ears, and feeling myself suddenly encaptivated.

(It was only later that the congruence between that view through my window and the album's artwork struck me.)

Amongst other things, I loved the witty juxtapositions of sound, key and lyric. Most of all, I loved its joyous haphazardness, its infectious mania. It was definitely one of my favourite albums of 2007 (2007? Bloody hell, that's two years ago!) – and sparked an ongoing admiration for the band.

So you may well imagine that I have been eagerly anticipating Dragonslayer. And I stubbornly refuse to apologise for the fact that I shall doubtless be measuring it up, herebelow, against the yardstick of Random Spirit Lover.

Okay then, Heavy Soil – get out your yardstick

First song 'Silver Moons' establishes the pace in the same way that the excellent 'The Mending of the Gown' did for 'Random Spirit Lover'. But where 'The Mending...' was helter-skelter, bubbling over, madly inventive, scarcely contained, 'Silver Moons' is measured, atmospheric, grandiloquent. There's a heaviness here that's quite a departure from Random Spirit Lover's flightiness.

To me, the record approaches, at times, the sound of Wolf Parade (one of lead vocalist Spencer Krug's several other musical outfits).

And with the move away from flightiness, there's also a move in the direction of higher-fi. That's not to say that this is a glossily produced release – but the rawness of Random Spirit Lover (with its grittily massive kick drum sounds and oh-so-brittle guitars) is decidedly tamed, here – resulting, perhaps, in a more balanced mix ... but (to Heavy Soil's ears) one that's also less charming, more conventional.

The band recaptures the thrill of the earlier album fitfully. 'You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II)' kicks satisfyingly into its outro, with the sense of surging into a home straight ... And there's still musical wit in here. The little guitar soloed snatch of 'We Wish You A Merry Christmas' in 'Silver Moons', the pass-the-parcel countermelodies of 'Apollo And The Buffalo And Anna Anna Anaa Oh!'...

So, yes, let's talk about more of the good stuff

'Idiot Heart' is a standout track – possibly the album's best (we've already written about the song in isolation, but – for your convenience, here's a link to Idiot Heart mp3). 'Black Swan' is also pretty kickin', with its eerily insistent taps, snaps and clicks, and sudden tempestuous gusts of sweeping melody. It's no coincidence, I suspect, that these are two of the record's most uptempo and dynamically varied songs.

The heavy sinuousness of closing track 'Dragon's Lair' (= Dragonslayer, if you say it aloud, see?) is handled well, and the song justifies its ten-and-a-half-minute length, as themes (both lyrical and melodic) are teased out and organically developed.

And there are still those ebullient surges into Casio toy keyboard tomfoolery – but they're somehow a bit more sensible, a bit less adventurous, a bit more subdued.

Subdued, you say?

Yes, subdued.

Everything about this record feels safer than Random Spirit Lover. And perhaps that means more people will like it [what do you mean, 'jadedly cynical'? This is a music blog, damn it: what did you expect?]. But Sunset Rubdown have taken a step away from the territory that made them so interesting to me.

That's not to say there's nothing new here. There's more extensive (and effective) use of Camilla Wynne Ingr's backing vocals, which often superbly offset Spencer Krug's reedy squawks. And there's perhaps more consideration given to the delicacies of arrangement and mix – a more transparent sound – which allows details to shine through.

But there's nothing here that surprises me.

And I like surprises.

(Surprise presents are particularly nice. Postal address provided on request.)

So what you're saying is ...?

What I'm saying is: this is quite a good album. If I hadn't been bewitched and betwitched by Random Spirit Lover and were coming at this afresh, it would certainly be strong enough to make me take notice. It's just that, relative to the slapdash brilliance of the band's earlier work, it's slightly disappointing.

Get this: not enormously disappointing. Just slightly.

The omnipresent disclaimer: the mp3s herefromlinked are provided to allow you better to gain an impression of Sunset Rubdown's work. If you like, 'em, please go and preorder the album (Amazon UK)

Friday, 29 May 2009

A Majestic Piece of Friday Splendidness by the Impressions

It's Friday, the sun is shining, and Heavy Soil is in a moderately jubilant frame of mind. In celebration of this fact, we present: sunnyfridaysong.

This comes to us courtesy of the recommendation of the wise Mr Craig (here he is on Twitter; here he writes about things cinematographic; and here is our opinion of his own superb musics), who is pretty hot on the jazzward side of the musical spectrum.

So … back to 'Gone Away'.

I love the opening, with its dark, reedy horns and shimmering tremolando strings – and the thoroughly unexpected harmonic shift as the intro steps up into verse 1. Altogether the arrangement is a majestic piece of splendidness, inspired glockenspiel figures, insistent syncopations, seamlessly interwoven countermelodies and all.

2.23's shift to major is ace, too, as we burst into the middle-8. Then, twenty seconds later, we're treated to an exhilaratingly vertiginous interlude of triple time. Brilliant.

Nice bass, too. And, of course, the vocals are superb – backing and lead.

(Incidentally, I realise that – lyrically – this isn't exactly sunnyfriday in spirit. But, hell, it's good, innit?)

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Review: Further Complications by Jarvis Cocker

Great artwork, by the way

I absolutely understand why some people would find themselves utterly turned off by Jarvis Cocker. He is deeply, deeply self-conscious in a way that has the potential to be frustrating, especially if interpreted as clever-clever yet empty irony.

I, however, am an enthusiastic admirer. One of the first five or six albums I owned was Pulp's This Is Hardcore – an album I'd still rank amongst the most sublime of my record collection. And I really don't think he's ever been fey, arrogant or poseurish in his irony – qualities to which I would object.

On the newly released solo album Further Complications, in any case, he is probably the straightest he's been. Even when he's self-consciously punning, it's rather beautifully constructed, rather dignified in its rueful self-deprecation. Here's the opening of Leftovers:

I met her in the museum of paleontology
And I make no bones about it
I said if you wish to study dinosaurs,
I know a specimen whose interest is undoubted

Trapped in a body that is failing me
Well, please allow me to be succinct
I wanna love you whilst we both still have flesh upon our bones
Before we both become extinct

And, hell, Jarv delivers the lines like a pro. He's human, all too human.

Jarvis Cocker at – or near – his best

The best songs are 'Angela', which is a fucking brilliant single – definitely one of the year's best –and 'I Never Said I Was Deep', which is maturely angry, ambiguous and sad. And damn well instrumented, too. Have a listen to the whole song, why don't you? Download an mp3 of Jarvis Cocker's 'I Never Said I Was Deep'. I defy you not to get into this groove. Er, man.

Thanks to the engineering/production (whatever you want to call it) of the to-all-intents-and-purposes-deified-by-Heavy-Soil Steve Albini, this album is very different from Cocker's previous work (both in and out of Pulp). Immediate, urgent, three-dimensional. Production-wise, 'Fuckingsong' is a highlight, with its scrapes, raking-claw feedback and reversed guitar slices.

And when the momentum is up, this is terrifically compelling. Check out 'Angela' (if you'll excuse the expression), and you'll see what I mean. Like an artist working with a new medium, Cocker's songs take on a wholly new aspect under the uncompromising fingers of Albini. At times, this is Cocker at or near his best.


I do feel, though, that the album does the same thing as did Pulp's swansong We Love Life and (to a lesser degree) Cocker's debut solo record, Jarvis: it loses its momentum and focus toward the end. Goes slightly to seed. Things get a little too long, slow and delay-soaked … And (more damagingly) start to sound very very much like other Pulp/Cocker songs – exactly the trap the majority of the earlier songs had not only avoided but disarmed and converted into dootzy mantlepiece ornaments.

Aside from this sonic wavering towards its end, I like this record's colours: off-blacks – slate and charcoal – dashed through with coppery strands. The nasal resonance of the horns tessalating seamlessly with the no-edge-smoothed signature Albini sound. Cocker's vocals have always tended (in a good way) toward the oily – and sit fantastically in this context. A hugely satisfactory contrast of textures: it's like eating scallops with crunchy-fried bacon.

Awesome, in other words.

If only there wasn't that shift down in musical gears – accompanied, crucially, by a shift down in musical originality – towards the end. It not only undoes the admirable work of the earlier songs; it also prevents me fully from grasping the album as a whole. And this is the problem with which I've been grappling since I first bought it. Because, on the strength of the first two-thirds, I'd rate this album very highly (though probably still shy of This Is Hardcore). But as a whole, I can't quite say.

Hey, how about you buy it yourself (iTunes, Amazon) and let me know what you think, eh?

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Musikhorizon 2: Sunset Rubdown jiggle and surge

Sunset Rubdown is an imaginative, witty, lemon-zesty-fresh kind of a band. If you read yesterday's post, you'll not need to be told that Heavy Soil slathers its rabid admiration over their excellent album Random Spirit Lover.

And, next month, they have a new album out, the intriguingly entitled 'Dragonslayer'.

So today's appetite-whetter is the single from said album. Download an mp3 of Idiot Heart by Sunset Rubdown.

I know what Allan of AWMusic means when he says that 'I usually don’t like Sunset Rubdown tracks as stand alone but rather in one cohesive unit'. It's fair to say that Sunset Rubdown is a big-concepts sort of band.

Nevertheless, this is a pretty promising song, spikily swooping, tight-yet-loose. There's a breathless, jiggly-legged insistence to its momentum, and the usual Sunset Rubdown lyrical oscillations between wrily youthful refrains and mythologically tinged fragmentation.

… And a wonderful surge into melody from 'If I was a horse', with nice sprinklings of female backing vocals. It has the thing that Heavy Soil likes in a song: organicism. The music develops and the arrangements billow and contract in a way that is neither rigid nor predictable.

So, yes. Dragonslayer is out on 23 June. Good good.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Review: Random Spirit Lover by Sunset Rubdown

Once again from the archives, this is another review that I originally wrote, something more than a year ago, I believe, for MOG but which that site's redesign has rendered painful to read. So I reproduce it here. It'll also link (in the seamless manner you've come to expect) to the next Musikhorizon song – due tomorrow.

Wit in music.

Not in lyrics, which is easy enough – but in the way one chord leads to another, or a melody appears, or pauses are used. It's a rare phenomenon: one found in the work of classical composers such as Handel and Joseph Haydn, say. A (rather more modern) witty album, in my opinion, is Weezer's Pinkerton (leagues better than anything else by the band) – and Sunset Rubdown’s Random Spirit Lover reminds me, in some ways, of that record.

To start off by comparing Sunset Rubdown to Weezer is (to put it mildly) potentially misleading. These two bands are not coming from the same place. But the ebullient, inventive playfulness – coupled with musical intelligence tempered with irreverence – is common.

And, despite the many differences between the bands, there is also a certain similarity in sound between Random Spirit Lover and Pinkerton (which, if you don't know it, is quite, quite different from Weezer’s more recent, heavily produced releases).

A brittle, unproduced, spindly quality.

Defining Sunset Rubdown's musical wit isn't necessarily easy. Much of the time, it's to do with juxtapositions and an almost slapdash approach to traditional musical devices. Keys change with abandon (just as they do, brilliantly, in Weezer's 'Across the Sea'), and, at times, the music puts me in mind of an excitable school music class, all of whom have unplugged their keyboards while practising (and messing around with) their scales and arpeggios.

Which, of course, would actually sound awful.

But here, it doesn't: Random Spirit Lover isn’t ever cacophanous. There’s even a certain strange, deliberate cheesiness to it all, with its retro synth sounds and scale-based melodies. Which, again, might sound derogatory – but is in fact laudatory.

Troubadour synth-pop

Before I allow the cement to dry around my Weezer comparison, I should note that Sunset Rubdown’s music is far more experimental and eclectic. On the latter quality, indeed, few artists or bands successfully combine aspects of everything from troubadour-esque, quasi-Medieval balladry, through Music Hall, to 80s synth-pop. This outstanding ability to bring together disparate musical elements sets the band alongside artists such as Joanna Newsom – different though their respective 'sounds' and influences may be. There's a baseline of irreverence and deliberate messiness, backed up by strong musicianship, that is reminiscent of The Dresden Dolls – and a marriage between traditional rock instrumentation and the unashamedly synthetic that makes the band sound, at times, ever so slightly like Grandaddy (albeit Grandaddy on speed).

Hugely energetic, idiosyncratic, inventive – it's one of the best opening tracks I've heard. As throughout the album, melodic instruments (guitar or synth leads) feature prominently. Set-piece solos are rare, with these intricate, rather fragile melodic lines instead being woven into the texture of the whole song, often cleverly offsetting the vocals. Lead instruments, then, are integral, not gratuitous.

Lo-fi-electro-intellipunk jig

Elsewhere, there is further proof of adventurous eclecticism: 'Up on Your Leopard, Upon the End of Your Feral Days' might be best described as a lo-fi-electro-intellipunk jig, with its vaguely courtly feel even (appropriately, given the lyrical content). 'For the Pier (and dead shimmering)', meanwhile, is a kind of jerky, arpeggiator-laced take on Rogers & Hammerstein ('When You Walk Through a Storm').

'The Courtesan Has Sung' pairs sparsely-set vocal imitation (a kind of 'round') with martial rhythms – and then, when the rest of the instruments enter halfway through, there is a fantastic effect of sudden 'grounding' – new and unexpected life is added to the melodies.

An entirely different vocal texture – male and female vocals, doubled an octave apart and blended into a curiously androgynous hybrid – is explored in 'Colt Stands Up, Grows Horns'. (The band Mew does something similar, at times.) Then, the song blossoms into a dark, retro delayed-synth interlude—vaguely prog-rockish, but with far better chord changes. The result is brilliantly atmospheric, like instrumental music to a lo-fi indie science fiction movie.

Lyrics are often abstract, literary and somewhat opaque. But, when they need to be, they are clear, powerful – and brilliant:

But the pattern of flight is chaotic and blind
but it's right
Because chaos is yours and it's mine;
And chaos is luck, and like love, and love blind.

And – just to show that the band's wit isn't limited to the music alone – note the self-referential touch of the device called Verfremdungseffekt (or, more prosaically, according to wikipedia, 'alienation effect') – so beloved of absurdist theatre:

And explosions make debris
and catching it kind of suits you
well it doesn't suit me
She said, "My sails are flapping in the wind."
I said, "Can I use that in a song?"
She said, "I mean the end begins."
I said, "I know. Can I use that too?"

Listening to Random Spirit Lover, it is sometimes easy, in fact, to forget that these are songs – so well-considered and cleverly paced is the album. Tracks merge into one-another so that, often, inter-song transitions are barely noticeable – despite drawing on such disparate influences and sources, and vary so considerably in almost any musical sense. Impressively, dramatic and attention-holding variations in tempo, rhythm, key and arrangement are nevertheless bound seamlessly into a balanced, unified whole.

Seldom, I think, have I come across an album that successfully – entirely convincingly – covers so much musical ground, yet loses none of its focus and integrity. Excellent, and – I predict – enduringly interesting and rewarding.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Review: Foamy Lather by Ultralash

I wrote the words below whilst on the reviewing team at MOG. But it was recently brought to my attention that my review, as it appears on MOG following that site's redesign, is now practically unreadable.

So here's a neatened up version.

There's not enough written about the band in question – Ultralash – on the web. So I figured that what there is should be easily accessible. For this is a fine band.

So: the review.

Imagine a lo-fi, countrified, battery-operated Portishead.

Right? Easy. Now, add a dusting of insouciant Damon Albarn (bear with me), the alt-rock nursery-rhyme quality of Eels, and, finally, a seasoning of late 80s/early 90s synth-pop.

Got that?

Possibly not. But I've made one point, at least: Ultralash is quite an unusual-sounding outfit.

Lads' mag alt-folk?

It's an odd name, for starters. Ultralash! Here in the UK, at least (I know not how universal the slang phrase "on the lash" may be), it could pass for the title of a lads' mag, or an 'edgy' Channel 4 documentary focusing on underage drinking and club culture.

I have to say that the sound of this record is nothing like my idea of a band called Ultralash. Which is not – I might add – necessarily a bad thing.

This is an experimental album – not trendy, not a la mode. Its roots are in American folk – but this record is 'folk' in its broadest, least generic sense. The slightly ramshackle, rough-edged juxtapositions of electronic and acoustic elements – trundling samples against fingerpicked guitar – is suggestive of the alt-country genre. I hear echoes of Grandaddy's fascination with organicised technology (although Ultralash is sparser, far less lush and accessible) and, more distinctly, of Sparklehorse – particularly the use of distorted, choppy mechanical loops, and the practice of interspersing short, sample-based interlude tracks amongst the album's longer songs.

Avoiding the cliches

For a record with its heart in folk/country, Foamy Lather avoids just about every potential cliche of those genres. Often, vocals take a subordinate role in these songs: sketchy, distant in the mix, effects-laden and detached. At times, reminiscent of PJ Harvey's excellent White Chalk.

Unlike White Chalk, though, this is a beat-suffused album. The dirty, roomy kit sound of opener 'Like a Daisy' is meaty and confidently simple: alongside the distorted, off-key bass, it's the backbone of the track, rather than a nuanced accompaniment. Rhythms, samples and loops frequently and emphatically take centre-stage.

Indeed, it's not until the fourth track – the rather lovely 'Dayglow' – that we hear Karry Walker's vocals mixed clean and upfront. It's an affecting, versatile voice, and the performance eloquently captures the weary quality of the song. I'm glad she made us wait three tracks for it.

Noncommittal Modernism - slaloming from melancholia to noise

Foamy Lather's songs are often explorations of single ideas and motifs, rather than complex, crafted entities. Development tends to be in arrangement and performance rather than built into the songs' structures. The impression is of a fragmentary work – slaloming from acoustic melancholia to collages of mechanical noise.

There's something Modernist about it all - rather TS Eliot ("a heap of broken images") – and the listener is quite deliberately (it seems to me) left to make sense of the bizarre juxtapositions and extreme, sudden shifts in tone and colour.

All of which, of course, makes it a difficult record about which to make general observations. I might call it sparse in nature – but then I think of the burst of lushness (strings, vocal harmonies, dirty drums) towards the end of 'Girl On Girl'. Listening to the pitch-bent, woozy near-bitonality of 'Whiskey Sour', I might call it obscure and capricious ... Or apathetic, wry and remote, with the Blur-like, "can't be bothered" vocal inflections of 'Turn Me On'. And then I stumble upon a gem of heartfelt sincerity – the nostalgia-tinted, melancholic 'Bury Me' – that knocks my carefully-assembled adjectives into disarray.

It's enigmatic, then – and eclectic. And challenging. In the best way.


Sugary platitudes + chauvinism

Which brings me to the song I've chosen to feature. Download an mp3 of 'World Of Suck' by Ultralash.

Bearing in mind my words above, it may need not be said that there's no representative track on this album – no neat encapsulation of the Ultralash sound. But I think 'World Of Suck' illustrates what I (perhaps pretentiously) think of as the band's noncommittal modernism.

Again, carried by a weighty beat (heavily distorted – bit-crushed – kit), it's a poker-faced 'Nothing Compares 2 U' (Sinnead O'Connor's version) for the 00s – its lyrics juxtaposing sugary romantic platitudes with intense chauvinism:

You're cute
Nice rack
Not fat
What's that?
You're fine
I can really talk to you.

It's a brilliantly unsettling song: by turns comical and dark, impenetrably delivered. Again, I'm reminded of PJ Harvey – in spirit and fearlessness more than in sound. Investigate: visit the Ultralash website.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Review: Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle by Bill Callahan

Bill Callahan is one of the relatively few songwriters who'll actually make me think about his lyrics. Because his delivery is so refreshingly opaque, so stripped of interpretative clues, listening to his work often approaches a literary experience.

That sounds fucking pretentious, doesn't it?

But it's true. The vast, vast majority of artists ram their meaning (such as it is) squarely in your face. Even those whose lyrics may be obscure or surreal will commonly deliver their performances in a way which offers precious little emotional ambiguity.

Bill Callahan is different. He performs as though he were reading poetry from a book, or covering someone else's songs. He does not presume, with his delivery, to govern the listener's response.

This endows his music with several a massive integrity. And makes interpreting it something of an endeavour.

... Which means, I suspect, that this review – of his 13th album, Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle – is going to be like a bloody essay. Good news, eh?

Well, let's get started, shall we?

'Eid Ma Clack Shaw' is the most intelligent song I've heard so far this year.

(So why not download an mp3 of Eid Ma Clack Shaw by Bill Callahan and pop it onto your stereobox?)

All pert piano, sonorous horns and 'Eleanor Rigby' strings, the song prepares us for the preoccupation of the record – the core to which so many of the songs may be nibbled down: coexistence of contradictory states. In 'Eid Ma Clack Shaw', it's dream-world and reality. The speaker dreams 'the perfect song / [that holds] all the answers' – the answers to his lonely desire to rid himself of memories (we presume of a departed lover). Waking, he 'scribble[s] it down' – but the words turn out to be incomprehensible.

(We'll come back to this.)

... Meanwhile (Christ a-fucking-live) I can't remember the last time I found a line of song as moving as the climax of 'Too Many Birds': 'If you could only stop your heartbeat for one hearbeat', sings Callahan, dispassionate as ever. Except that's not how we first hear it. The line is stoically repeated, eked out:

If you.
If you could.
If you could only ...'

– and so on.

Here: have a listen, won't you. Download mp3 of Too Many Birds by Bill Callahan

As the line is painstakingly built and its meaning and emphasis shimmers and shifts, we witness the evolution of a beautiful melody, its character changing with each added word.

There's something of TS Eliot in this. The way in which a simple device (in this case repetition) is deployed in such a way (in concert with achingly dispassionate delivery) as to apply an emotional mace to the belly.

You're used to my grinding pretension, by now, I suppose – so you won't mind me illustrating my point with a quotation from the fucking excellent [that's a literary term] opening of Eliot's 'Ash Wednesday', will you?:

'Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn'

... Similar idea. Similar power.

Grand, Beautiful, Metaphorical.

And then there's the grand, beautiful metaphor that plays itself out across these songs. Like all good grand, beautiful metaphors, it is complex and not manifested outright. It doesn't govern the album, and it is not unambiguous. But it's all the better for that – and let's continue our jamboree of literary magpieism with a few lines from the wise and awesome Walt Whitman:

'Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)'

Well put, Mr Whitman.

So, with that in mind, I'm not about to elucidate what I take to be the grand, beautiful metaphor – except to say that the whole of the album flits around the push and pull of togetherness (horse & rider; flock of birds) versus independence (the eagle). Around the concept of belonging; of possession, fixity and ownership. But I don't want to start explicating and ascribing symbols (even those bracketed equations I've just made are jarringly black/white) ...

And, in any case, the skill (and the magic) is not in the arraignment of neat symbols or allusions, but in their combination with one another and the shades of overlap and ambiguity. Take the song 'All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast', which opens with the lines,

'The leafless tree looked like a brain
The birds within were all the thoughts and desires within me.'

To this tree flies an eagle – causing the birds scatter – leaving the the eagle to alight, powerful, independent but alone – and ushering the song to its climax:

'All thoughts are prey to some beast.
Sweet desires and soft thoughts: return to me.'

If we plod through this record as though we're dealing with simple metaphor/personification, we run into trouble. Where's Callahan in all this? What represents what? Tempting questions. But probably futile ones.

Let's return, then, to this idea of coexistence.

And let's think about the title of the record: Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. In the context of 'All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast', that's clear enough. Independence and power (the eagle) are good; but togetherness is also good. Hence the desire that the contradictory states of independence and companionship be reconciled.

But – like the gibberish refrain of 'Eid Ma Clack Shaw' – this only makes sense in a dream world. And the speaker is left trying to pull together fistfuls of air.

The record's title, and the eagle's lament, and 'Eid Ma Clack Shaw' ... In all of these, there's the sense of Callahan the storyteller pushing together two repelling magnetic poles. Of straining at a metaphor or a narrative to try and make it contain and reconcile experience. Which it ultimately fails to do.

So what's the answer?

'I started telling the story without knowing the end', says the speaker of opening song Jim Cain. 'I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got dark again. And something too big to be seen was passing over and over me.'

The record ends up hinging upon storytelling. Running in counterpoint to 'Eid Ma Clack Shaw' and 'Too Many Birds' – with their ultimately futile struggle for comprehension of and control over emotion – is the notion of control through rationalisation and narrative:

'I looked all around
And it was not written down
I will always love you
My friend'

... is the opening of 'My Friend'. And there's something very touching about this – the sense of liberation by which the song is buoyed – the empowerment of the simple declaration. It's no coincidence, I'd argue, that this is the record's most upbeat, straightforward song.

... And this in turn makes a sort of sense of the album's expansive final song – 'Faith / Void' – and its gently insistent repetition: 'It's time to put God away.'

More than just a paean to atheism, isn't it a kind of epiphany? A realisation that there's not an external power to be found that will easily reconcile all contradictions, pull together all strands.

God, in this sense, is just another image, another entity onto which the speaker (is it Callahan, by now?) may project – and through which he may imagine completion (or 'peace'). And the song is about retreating from the struggle for resolution or control or comprehension – in favour, perhaps, of simple (bittersweet) reflection.

And it don't get much more Ash Wednesday than that.

Yeah, anyway.

What did I warn you? Like a bloody essay, I said. And that's what you got. Your fault for persevering, innit?

So, to summarise: if you haven't bought an album yet this year, end your streak (you fucking streaker, you) with Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. And if you have bought albums already this year, add this one to your shiny horde. Here's an iTunes and an Amazon link (both UK) to speed you on your way.

Without any doubt at all, I say that this is the best album I have heard so far in 2009.

[And may I close with my customary gentle reminder: Heavy Soil provides mp3 downloads so that you may dab a little of Bill Callahan onto your tongue and sample his muskily complex flavour. If you're licking your lips after this amuse-bouche, please buy the album.]

Saturday, 18 April 2009

PJ Harvey & John Parish -- Live

A couple of days ago (on Thursday night, to be precise), Heavy Soil was fortunate enough to witness the musicmaking of Ms PJ Harvey and Mr J Parish (and band), in Oxford Brookes Student Union. Take a glance at the following video, courtesy of petemanning1975, for a wee taste:

I twittered my impressions as follows (if you want chronological sense, go from the bottom up):

... So, yes, it was rather good. Though I couldn't help but think: if PJH is this good live when playing only collaborative numbers (the songs were taken from just the two albums released jointly by PJH + Parish, with no PJH solo material), she'd be friggin' excellent doing her own stuff.

I like the PJH/Parish music, but it generally (taken as a whole) lacks the variety and intensity of the solo albums.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

He is a rock. And he has a new album out.

I like Bill Callahan (he of Smog fame) very much indeed. Ever since seeing him play in Belfast, Heavy Soil has been a confirmed admirer of his low-key, modest sincerity.

His new album, Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, was released yesterday, and is currently making its way down the tubes and ventilation shafts of the mighty www onto my iTunes. Rest assured, o soiler: it shall receive its review in due course.

Meanwhile, as an amuse bouche, if you will, I leave you with this video for 'Rock Bottom Riser', from his A River Is Not Too Much To Love album. If you remain unacquainted with the delights of Callahan, I urge you to give it a whirl.

Bask in the unhurried delivery, the mature and matter-of-fact way in which his voice navigates some lovely harmonic/melodic waters. Many an artist, had they come up with this chorus, would've milked dry the 'owe it all to you' passage, for instance. But Callahan has the restraint to let the melody sing itself.

... and what a delicious, warming change to major at 1.45. Enjoy.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Review: Metric's Fantasies -- compressed hubba bubba

Heavy Soil is very, very tired.

I'm just at the end of listening – start to end – (not, obviously, for the first time) to Metric's new record, Fantasies, which arrived in my inbox, neatly e-shrink-wrapped, at the end of last week. You can order a copy via Metric's website, should you so desire.

Now, as you might suppose of one who chooses to review releases on a music blog, I am not especially prone to music-induced fatigue. However, the fact remains that Metric's latest album has exhausted me.

Why? I give you one word:


Others have written with greater authority, with more prolonged and impassioned delivery than I about the musical phenomenon that is the loudness/compression wars. So please take the following explanation as only the most cursory of summaries.

But, essentially, compression is about making the quiet bits of music louder, whilst the very loudest bits stay the same. Because of the way our ears work, the effect is an apparent boost to the loudness of the whole track. Compression is why, if you put on (god forbid) Oasis's What's the Story (Morning Glory), it'll sound way louder than, say, 'London's Calling'.

But there's a downside to compression. The more you raise the apparent volume of the track by boosting the quieter sounds, the more you iron out dynamic contrasts – the distinction between loud and soft. Excessive compression can squash the life out of a recording, removing the impact of a snare hit or a distorted guitar entry that would normally create a dramatic change in volume.

This video explains it, no doubt, rather more concisely than I have managed:

Heavily compressed tracks also become tiring to the ears. There's no relief. Do you ever find yourself, partway through listening to a record (especially on headphones), with an odd sense of claustrophobia or irritation? A mild sensation of unease or the sense that you're in some way hemmed in? A vague desire somehow to put a bit of distance between yourself and the music that's coming into your ears?

That's probably the effect of compression.

So ... back to Metric, then.

Fantasies is pretty heavily compressed. And I find that a bit annoying. Okay, so it is very well produced, and the band is clearly going for a slick, pop-informed approach. But it's a bit much for Heavy Soil. A bit full-on. What might seem 'pumping' for two songs seems wearying by track 8 – at which point Heavy Soil's ears are craving respite.

But enough about compression, eh? Let's try and talk about the songs.

It starts well. 'Help I'm Alive' is big – with massive bass and a hoofing kick. The chord progressions carry the song forward effectively, and there's a strong sense of momentum. Yes, it's compressed to hell – but on this song, in isolation, it works.

And the momentum is retained over the course of the next couple of songs. 'Sick Muse' (pretty good) kicks into its chorus with more than a dusting of Ash (think 'Burn Baby Burn' [youtube]). Indeed, there's an awful lot about this record that recalls the guitar-pop of yesteryear.

... 'Gold Guns Girls' – for instance – starts off with a riff that could've come straight from Franz Ferdinand's debut. It's pacey, with heaps of on-beat delay and smooth, piped-cream fuzz. Emily Haines's heavily treated vocals soar above the glassy blend of beats, guitars and synths – the familiar Metric formula – and the juxtaposition works as well as ever. But it's not really leading anywhere.

There are quieter, more restrained songs, too. But often these fail to leave much impression. They may (as in the case of 'Front Row') mess around with a few interesting dominant seventh chords and a pretty melody or two – but they tend to congeal rather than attractively mutate.

At this point, please be my guest and download an mp3 of closing track 'Stadium Love' by Metric. It's probably the most interesting thing on the album. An 80s-tinged buzzing blend of distorted guitars and hard-edged synths hammer out an insistent, two-note bass riff that – in its simplicity – is more powerful than any number of mathsy guitar figures and hyper-layered 8-bar chord progressions. This is real momentum, a la Sonic Youth et al. And it's a pity – and something of a disappointment – that we've had to wait until the album's last track to get it.

Overall, then, the record is surprisingly two-dimensional.

I've always thought of Metric as intellipop – music that's interesting and slightly subversive in its tendency to seem simpler and more obvious than it actually proves to be. Whether through unexpectedly outre production tricks, wrongfooting chord progressions or Emily Haines's twisty, deadpan lyrics.

But on Fantasies, there's far less depth. Whereas I'd previously have condemned comparisons with bands like No Doubt as lazy, on the strength of this offering, I'd not be so sure.

You see, I smell a disconcerting whiff of Hubba Bubba.

There are too many familiar production techniques, too much delay. It's unavoidably a little bland: too artificial, mass-market-sounding. I come to Metric wanting the odd surprise, the shot of dark unpredictability that suddenly clouds its crystalline pop surroundings with inky blooms. And that doesn't happen often enough, here. Too much sheep's clothing; too little wolf.

As ever, if you like the free mp3 – which is provided in order that you, the reader, may appraise – please buy the music.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Review: A Woman A Man Walked By, by PJ Harvey and John Parish

So, you've seen the video for 'Black Hearted Love'? Good, innit?

But what about the album?

It's called A Woman, A Man, Walked By, and it was released on Monday. PJH's site altruistically offers a list of emporia in which you can snaffle it up.

Something New, Or More Of The Same?

PJH is all about reinvention. Few artists (and extraordinarily few with a comparably high profile) have explored so rich an array of voices and identities over the course of their career. How much of a change is A Woman, A Man, Walked By, relative to what's gone before?

Like White Chalk, there is a fascination with textures (meaning the combination of instruments and sounds at any one time) and timbres (meaning the tones and sonic characteristics of each individual instrument or sound). And also like White Chalk, there's a lot of percussion going on, but hardly ever courtesy of a drum kit. PJH and John Parish seem to favour not only acoustic, minimalist percussion (tambourines, hand drums and the like), but also percussive instrumentation and production.

So guitars are real rhythm instruments – woody and brittle or diced, metallic, rattlingly hacked ... And they're equalised in such a way as to accentuate the attack of each strum or pick – so that the songs drive without having their detail obscured by tub-thumping.

Guitars figure centrally, then. Nevertheless they're not perhaps as prominent or as open-throttled as the single 'Black Hearted Love' might've led us to expect. There's not as much uncomplicated rocking out as I'd expected having heard the single, with its expansive riffing and bluesy crunch – but there's lots of sonic inventiveness.

Not that I want y'all to think that this is a delicate, subtle record.

It's not. Fourth track 'Chair', for instance, is unsettlingly rootless, trip-hop-laced, oscillating between squally, punctuative rock onslaughts and eerily warbling pipe-organ-like sounds ... With its sudden, vertiginous transitions, the overall effect is something akin to Radiohead's 'Trans-Atlantic Drawl' [youtube] – a song (incidentally) that's criminally neglected thanks to its obscure B-side status, but actually one of the best – most interesting – things they've written.

(Radiohead's has way more key changes, though ...)

[Hey – why don't you just download PJ Harvey's 'Chair' as an mp3 and see what you make of it?]

Vocally – as ever – PJH is ventriloquistic. In 'April', she takes on the voice of a wheezy old soul singer – which, in combination with the rotary organ accompaniment, gives the song a tawdry, jaded, weary quality – until it soars to its impassioned, cracked climax, before subsiding again.

Then, in closing 'Cracks In The Canvas', she's doing the poetry-set-to-music thing that's so cringeworthy in the hands of those like George Pringle [last.fm]. It's not cringeworthy here – though she's still not quite as good at it as Jarvis Cocker (compare Pulp's superb 'David's Last Summer' [Last.fm link]).

'Passionless, Pointless' is all delay-soaked melancholy and hypnotic tremolo – but perhaps a little directionless (a nice unexpected key-change would've made it for me. But Heavy Soil is a shameless courtesan in the harem of the unexpected key-change, as you'll know by now).

Some of the unflinchingly aggressive, testosteroney delivery – which can veer into unpleasant territory, I presume deliberately – recalls Uh Huh Her (to my mind, her least successful album). I'm thinking of 'Pig Will Not' (which actually contains distorted vocal frequencies harsh enough to make me wince) and the brawling, sneering vocal assault of the album's title track. I have little doubt that it's intelligent as opposed to mindless shape-shifting and histrionics – and (boy) it certainly has an effect – but it's not necessarily easy or pleasant to listen to.

(... But is that what we come to PJH for? Methinks not.)

There is certainly a Kid A quality to this record in its combined austerity and pugnacious defiance. I'd link it, too, to Portishead's brilliant Third (indeed, songs such as 'The Soldier' tap into very similar sonic territories – washed-out, desaturated operating-room-folk). While White Chalk was veiled, subtle, shimmering, sunbleached, dignified, A Woman, A Man, Walked By is neurotically restless, by turns demandingly hysterical and obscurely reticent.

Put it all together then, Heavy Soil. It's what we pay you for.

(Eh? You pay me?)

Well, we're swinging from the excesses of Uh Huh Her to the otherwordliness of White Chalk, all imbued with something of the spirit of To Bring You My Love. There's a kind of rabidness –a glassy-eyed, bolshy unpredictability to the whole thing – and the album certainly feels (at times) as close to the edge as did Rid Of Me.

Musically, though, it meanders a little at times. Part of its nature (the artistic conception behind it, I'd hazard) is to be far less consistent, less encapsulated-in-amber, than White Chalk. It sets out to do something quite different – something far more intrusive; active, not passive. And the music successfully sets my head spinning. As might a bloke who clocks me round the bonce with a baseball bat, before tenderly kneeling at my side and reciting Gerard Manley Hopkins.

But if I'm judging the album as a deliberately provocative piece of art, I think it falls slightly short of excellence. At times, it's treading water. Not often, perhaps. But enough occasionally to let up on the bewilderment and to allow me to relax into a degree of familiarity.

In a way that albums such as the aforementioned Third (and, for that matter, Kid A) do not.

I suppose what I'm saying is, if PJH and John Parish are going to go for the unpredictably neurotic, they have to make sure it doesn't slip. And occasionally, it does. And, whatever they say, there are times on this record at which I feel I could be listening to an outtake from earlier album recording sessions. 'The Soldier' – to pick one song – could be a track on White Chalk.

... And, curiously, it's songs like the superb, soaring, matt-laminated 'Black Hearted Love' (certainly one of the album's most enjoyable) that jar in the context of the more aggressive, uncompromising stuff.

It's a good album, definitely. But (funnily enough, given the raw immediacy of some of the material) I don't think it's been pushed quite hard enough in places to be entirely what it wants to be.

As ever, the mp3 is provided in order that you may appraise. If said appraisal is positive, Heavy Soil urges you to position your money in a similar position to your mouth and buy the album.

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