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 []. 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' [ 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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