Monday, May 21, 2007

Sky Blue Sky by Wilco

There are a lot of things Wilco, and, by extension, frontman Jeff Tweedy, can be accused of; conforming to expectations is most certainly not one of them. That's why it comes as a surprise that Sky Blue Sky has been met with such contempt from some corners of the music press.
When alt. country was burgeoning, mainly because of Tweedy's early work with Uncle Tupelo, Being There came as a big, eclectic bolt from the Rock 'n' Roll blue.
Then, some smoothly produced pop in Summerteeth, which morphed into the white-noise/pop masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. When A Ghost is Born came along, you'd think people had cottoned on to the fact that while Wilco records are never quite what you'd expect, there's always a natural progression from one to another. So, while Sky Blue Sky, on the surface appears to be a quantum leap back in time for Wilco, a band that has unquestionably fought against its Daddy-rock leanings for over a decade, closer inspection reveals much more in common with its predecessors, and many tracks carry a clear connection to the less experimental moments on Ghost.

An important point to note is that the creative and artistic success of Sky Blue Sky should not be judged exclusively on its progressiveness (or lack thereof), as the band's experimental nature was not something they ever expressed an interest in maintaining in the long term. Unfortunately, that is most likely exactly what it will be judged on, and that is a shame. Because even though this may be Wilco's most clean, crisp and uncomplicated recording to date, it is also possibly the one that takes the longest to make its mark.

Irrespective of the intent of the band (or its fans), this is a collection of twelve really beautiful, well crafted songs. And that is what Wilco have always done better than anyone. In fact, the record opens with one the band's most beautiful recordings to date, in 'Either Way', a delightful 70s mid-tempo number which is a world apart from the angst-ridden fuzz of previous recordings, almost certainly a statement of intent from Tweedy regarding his emergence from the haze of painkiller addiction, as no doubt is the absolutely spotless production. And when newly recruited guitarist Nels Cline's solo kicks in midway, you just have to sit back and let it all wash over you, sappy strings and all, because it's a great song.

Cline's free jazz background comes screaming to the fore when the band let him loose on tracks like 'Impossible Germany', and when Wilco decide to rock out, they do so with gusto (at least, as much gusto as 6 well-to-do gents pushing 40 can muster), as on 'Please be Patient With Me' and 'Hate it Here'.
Not many bands in the world could flirt with Eagles-esque MOR rock and not come off looking impossibly twee and camp. It is testament to the songwriting chops of Tweedy et al. that Sky Blue Sky comes off as a beautiful, and surprisingly memorable excursion into middle-aged contentment. Wake up on a clear Sunday morning, put this CD on, close your eyes and enjoy it for what it is. Don't expect anything but quality.

4 stars

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Volta by Bjork

It's a trend that almost all artists/bands that enjoy any form of longevity tend to follow: Appear on the scene with either the debut or sophomore album wth a blinding crash, consolidate with two or three solid follow ups, broadening horizons, branching out, before going nuts, 'doing a Kid A' in the words of NME and making something totally unexpected. Having done THAT, one must then revert to the previous course, making a record that sounds like a natural progression from the record five years ago.
That's where Bjork appears to be now.
Volta picks up seamlessly from Post and Homogenic, heavy on beats, an electronic wonderland firmly rooted in moving your feet, and nodding your head, rather than floating, ethereal explorations of love circa the diversions of Vespertine and Medulla. There are indications, however, that this is the same woman who made those records: the bells-in-a-pond backing on 'I See Who You Are', and the swirling horns on 'The Dull Flame of Desire', which stars guest vocals from the ever-welcome Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons). But it's clear that this is back to the future for the Icelandic songstress, most notably evidenced on the video game punch-up backing beat of 'Innocence'.
Perhaps it's personal disappointment that Bjork didn't follow the Vespertine/Medulla road to its final (and potentially stunning) conclusion, but while it could never be accused of being boring, Volta seems to lack the cohesion that has set Bjork's work above other electronic/avant-garde artists of a similar ilk, suck as Norway's John Kaada. Beats, sounds, and lyrics are imaginative, novel and occasionally thrilling, but (and this is possibly being a bit harsh, given Volta is being compared to an incredible back catalogue) at the same time, it all feels like it's been done before, just not in quite this way.

3 1/2 stars

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Release the Stars by Rufus Wainwright

He said he wanted to make a record that made the sound of 'cash registers ringing'. And after 10 years of making orchestral high camp his turf, winning adulation from the elite minority, no one would deny Rufus Wainwright the right to chase the dollar. However, before even pushing play, it's quite clear that Rufus was either taking the piss in a big way, or has absolutely no idea what the vast majority of the unwashed masses want to listen to.

Having yourself photographed in personalised, monogrammed Leiderhosen posing in front of a fireplace is hardly the way to de-camp yourself after posing as Lady of Shallott on 2002's most excellent Want Two. And if you want to sell records, particularly in America, being gay, either overtly or covertly, is probably not the way to go. Then you hear the first track, 'Do I Disappoint You', and you realise that he's made no effort whatsoever to back away from his previous florid, layered, exquisitely dramatic and camp self, and we are all wealthier for it, because Release the Stars is a triumph.
Perhaps not quite the elegiac masterpiece that the Want twins were, this record actually emphasises Wainwright's 'more is more' approach, and the fact that it follows two utter gems probably harms it by comparison. But fear not, from the moment his voice kicks in (liquid gold emerging from a human's throat, if ever that has been) about 20 octaves up 3.12 into the opening track, and the brass section is unleashed, this record is exquisite in its majesty and grandiloquence.
One of Wainwright's strengths (other than that voice, and his impressive songwriting chops) has been his ability to do bombast and moderation with equal skill and panache. Stormers like 'Do I Disappoint You', 'Between My Legs' and album highlight 'Rules and Regulations' (horns and flutes have rarely been so judiciously unleashed) sit comfotably with downbeat ruminations such as 'Going to a Town' (where Rufus laments the rednecked homophobia of his homeland) and 'Not Ready to Love'.
Of course, no Wainwright release would be complete without a piece of high camp tory-baiting, a la 'Gay Messiah' from Want Two, and here we find it in the oh-so unsubtle 'Between My Legs', with it's gloriously cheecky climax, gleefully pilfering the hook from Andrew Lloyd-Webber's 'Phantom of the Opera', which is steeped in gay allegory that is open to interpretation. Just not much interpretation.
Closing on the title track, we realise that he's saying it in the same manner as Mr Burns and his hounds, setting celebrities loose on the world with a wry grin and a certain amount of satisfaction, all to a lounge music groove and an unspeakably sexy horn section (again). This is no departure from the old Rufus, this is Rufus in all his glory, replete in Leiderhosen and wonderment, revelling in the lofty heights his unparalleled talent can take him, and our lives are so much better for it.

4 1/2 stars

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? by Of Montreal

Don't try to make sense of the title. In fact, don't try to make too much sense of anything on this new record. Of Montreal, who are actually of Athens, in Georgia, USA, on their umpteenth record (having debuted in 1997 with Cherry Peel, and have released other incredible titles, such as Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies: A Variety of Whimsical Verse), have created a wonderment of pop/funk magic. The zany titles don't end with the album either, with songs called 'A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger' and 'Faberge Falls for Shuggie' (in fact, I could probably list all twelve tracks and they'd all be equally cool), but please, please, don't let this deter you from buying this record. Today. Now. Fuck, yesterday, just get your hands on this album, because you won't hear anything like it anytime soon.
Scandanavia lyrical references hint clearly at the Bjork/Sigur Ros/Jenny Wilson/all the other electronic pop and avant garde musicians from that musically adventurous part of the world, because every single track is infused with mischief, wonder, and danceable grooves worthy of Timbaland and N.E.R.D. However, they go a step beyond ANYTHING you can get your hands on right now, with the sliding bass of 'Gronlandic Edit', while the whole record is an endless supply of off-kilter but instantly appealing melodies intact over the band's newly robotic sound.
The record is also the darkest one that the band has made, a breakup album of sorts, with an ongoing theme of transformation, which explicitly takes place on the 12-minute centrepiece, 'The Past is a Grotesque Animal'; the opening few tracks are steeped in regret and sadness, while post 'Grotesque Animal' the album veers towards sexual adventurism as a form of therapy, with 'Bunny Ain't no Kind of Rider' finds the singer searching for a 'lover with soul power'.
But lyrical therapy aside, Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer finds a talented band at the height of their powers, and is a rare example of a band trying to step out of their comfort zone and succeeding extraordinarily well. This is an incredible recording.

4 1/2 stars

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Favourite Worst Nightmare by Arctic Monkeys

Bands that manage to carve out a proper career, i.e. one that can be measured in years rather than records, tend to have a choice of methods by which to achieve this. First, the Coldplay method: Make an unobtrusive entry to the world with an understated, excellent record, then follow it up with a stadium-sized behemoth of equal quality, with enough single to get known, then reproduce it. Second, the Radiohead method: Release one song which takes over the world for a while, release it on a sub-standard debut record. Then, proceed to disown that record and
take over the world with a second, dazzlingly good record (bear in mind that this requires a dazzlingly good second - and third - record). Thirdly, there is the Live option: Release a solid first record, a classic second record, then slowly fade into obscurity/up your own arsehole. That said, they've been around for over 12 years, so they've done ok.
Or, the Arctic Monkeys' option. Their entry to the music world was unique enough; web-based promotion par excellence, coupled with a fresh, exciting, and, most importantly, really fantastic debut record, they hit unprecedented heights, and managed to get their name on the lips of almost everyone who cared who they were (and plenty who didn't). So the question stands: what to do next? Well the answer is out, and it certainly isn't what anyone expected. First, the new album was out little more than a year after the first, and second, it's uniquely wilful and independent. Favourite Worst Nightmare could easily have been a rehash of their wonderful debut, but instead, it's measured, mature and balanced. The funniest thing, though, is that there is still a clear intent to keep things upbeat. Slow songs remain a rarety, however, the subject matter is darker, hooks are suddenly almost non-existant and the 'drop-out' (when everything stops except for the vocals or one instrument), which the Monkeys proved they were so good at last time, is used sparingly at best.
'Do the bad thing/Take off your wedding ring', off Do the bad thing is a far cry from tales of hookers, dodgy bouncers, sleazy tools at the pub and tales of young men trying to get their ends in. However, it's all very natural and amazingly dignified for a band that could so easily have fallen into the celebrity trap, believed their own press, and vanished into high-profile obscurity. That they haven't combined with this record, is an indication of the brains contained in their four 20 year-old heads.
That said, this record does lack the urgency, vitality and sheer excitement of Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, but it's still pretty loody good. And more importantly, it is a fair indication of the talent, nous and longevity the Arctic Monkeys possess. If Favourite Worst Nightmare is an indication of things to come, I think we can expect a wonderful career from these lads.
3 1/2 stars

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