Tuesday, October 31, 2006

All time top ten - #8 - Strange Bird

It may be parochial, but I'm so glad that this most excellent album made it into my top ten (suggesting of course, that it is my favourite Australian album ever). It may be a controversial choice. The newest record in the list, released in 2002, it is little heard outside Australia, by a band that has received little mainstream exposure. But since when has the mainstream been a decent jusge of good music? After releasing their debut, 'Sunset Studies' in 1999, Melbourne's Augie March set abot topping what was a cracking standard.
Theatrical where 'Sunset Studies' was poetic, clamourous where its predecessor was serene, 'Strange Bird' is an anachronism. From the psychadelic rockabilly drunken hoe-down of 'This Train Will be Taking No Passengers' to the distorted waltz with a jazz-lounge (applause included) breakdown of 'Little Wonder', or the 1920s swing of 'The Keepa', (which manages a misspelt cricket reference and is still majestic), 'Strange Bird' is like something from another era, yet is firmly rooted in the here and now.
Along with the aching 'The Night is a Blackbird' and the ukelele-driven 'Sunstroke House', 'Addle Brains' exemplifies the poetic grace with which singer-songwriter Glenn Richards paints his musical pictures. Not a note is wasted, not a word overwrought or forced. There is a lyrical grace sweeping across 'Strange Bird'. Here is a songwriter of the modern day raised on Nabakov, Yeates and Bellow (hence the name of the band, appropriated from 'The adventures of Augie March'), rather than just listening to his folks' old beatles and doors records before forming Jet.
Gorgeous, magical, literate, smart, sweeping, majestic and bold. Adjectives could flow for hours. But instead, you should just listen to it.

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I am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

For some time, there has been stiff competition for the title of Best Band Name in the World. ...and You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, Super Furry Animals, Future Kings of Spain, G. Love & Special Sauce, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band and many others fought tooth and nail. But as far as best album title goes, Yo La Tengo have swept all before them, with their new epic 'I am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass'. Buy it, solely for the purpose of telling your friends you own a record called 'I am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass'. Awesome. Which is a fairly apt description of the music contained therein. Yo La Tengo have created another eclectic, sprawling, unpredictable gem. Opening with the cryptically titled 'Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind'. Lord knows what that means, and the song itself is similarly obtuse, a bouncy bassline jumping in and out behind a distorted, grinding guitar piece, no trend whatsoever is set, as they move seamlessly into 'Beanbag Chair', 'I Feel Like Going Home' and 'Mr Tough', alternating between addictive, melody-driven pop and sweeping, dramatic and introspective string-laden ballad.
Convention and restraint are utterly ignored across the record, with opening and closing tracks exceeding ten minutes, and no musical landscape is left unmined, no sonic field unharvested. Lyrics are convoluted, instruments appear and vanish with (occasionally) frustrating regularity, but throughout, a senseof excitement and challenge permeates.
There may be better records this year (not a great many, mind you), but few, if any, will prove as challenging, or as rewarding.

4 1/2 stars


Sunday, October 22, 2006

All time top ten - #9 - Mothership Connection

Who gots the funk? In 1975, Parliament redefined party music, creating a new genre of sound. Perhaps not creating, but defining. Funk had a name, and an image. Someone born in 1990 can put on Mothership Connection and instantly feel like they've heard it all before, partly because of the umpteen samples that have been plagiarised by Snoop Dogg, P. Diddy et al, but also the clear influence it wields over R'n'B ever since.
Fusing together blues, jazz and rock, dressing it in a cape and sunglasses and soaking it in acid, George Clinton and his cohorts put in place a clear picture of what funk was. The opening two tracks ('P-Funk (Who Wants to Get Funked Up?)' and 'Mothership Connection') introduced two new characters on this starship of funk (there was a LOT of acid), including Starchild, who was to appear routinely in future Parliament records, guiding the listener through 8 tracks of party-inducing, drug fuelled insanity.
In 1975, there was no middle ground between rock, which tended towards overblown pretensions of a Pink Floyd-esque scale (Velvet Underground, King Crimson, Led Zeppelin etc) and disco, always rambunctious, but lacking in depth and vision (until the appearance of Chic in the late 70s). Funk filled the void perfectly, and never before or since has one record so amazingly distilled an entire muscial movement, while still thumping out record-scratching dancefloor magic of unparalleled fun at the same time.
This top ten list is dominated by bands and records renowned for being 'deep' and 'intense' and 'artistic', so for 'Mothership Connection' to grace it at number 9 speaks volumes for its power, influence, and sheer, hip-shaking brilliance.

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Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Information

It's quite thrilling, really. Beck gives you stickers! Design your own cover! And here, take a free bonus DVD with about 12 really crappy home-made film clips of songs from the album! It was worrisome. It smacked of the kind of thing a record company does to cover up the fact that one of their marquee names has recorded a dud. Happily, The Information is not that. Beck's too good, it seems, to produce rubbish. Even on autopilot, he still pumps out (with the help of producer Nigel Godrich) quality white boy eclecticism. The problem is, he's on autopilot. One can't quite say that The Information is bad, because it certainly isn't, but comparisons to his 1994 breakthrough, Odelay abound, and for a musical chameleon like Beck, to stagnate is to die. There's the faux-80s hip hop of lead single 'Cellphone's Dead', and the familiar latino/western/funk-on-crack gem 'Nausea'. He revisits 2001s Seachange on the swelling, moving 'Strange Apparition' and opener 'Elevator Music' is smugly ironic. These songs, amongst all the others, do not want for quality or catchiness, there's just a whiff of laziness about the whole thing. For an artist who has never taken a backwards step, what appears to be a sidestep is cause for concern. Those of us who remeber the thrill of sticking a new Beck record on the stereo pray that whatever's next will be something along the lines of a death metal record, or something similarly unexpected.
Until then, at least we can play with the stickers.

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