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.

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