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)

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