Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Tones of Town by Field Music

I don't think anyone really expected much from Field Music, leawst of all the members of Field Music. It all seemed like an innocent collaboration between members of Maximo Park and The Futureheads, with no aspirations of world conquest or end-of-year best-of lists. But from the first beat of their self-titled debut in 2005 to the last note of the heart-stoppingly gorgeous 'You're so Pretty', that expectation was dashed as they made one of the highlights of the year.

So, in the face of renewed expectations and the notion of Field Music being a band in its own right, rather than the ubiquitous side project, how does Tones of Town stack up? Pretty darn well. I say darn as any form of foul language being used in association with Tones of Town seems out of place. Field Music have made that most wonderful of anachronisms, a good Beatles-esque pop album. That particular adjective gets tossed around a little bit too much, but it may well be appropriate, with the record recalling those oh-so English moments from Sgt Peppers or Abbey Road, when a Liverpudlian accent seemed to encapsulate all that was beautiful and nostalgic about 1950s England. Even on the cover art, the band members are pictured holding an old microphone recording machine dating from at least then.

That's not to say that Tones of Town is not very much a product of the here and now; even as instrumentation is determinedly old-fashioned, songs are kept tight and taut in a way Messrs Lennon, McCartney and Harrison often failed to see the beauty of. Not a note is wasted, no harmony overused (witness beautiful littly opening ditty - ditty seems like a more appropriate word than song here, and that's a compliment - 'Give It Lose It Take It') as strings wash in and out without overstaying there welcome. Percussion jumps around with xylophone cameos and little keyboard flourishes, all the while making the listener feel like a cup of tea and his slippers while waiting for the local marching band to appear around the corner.

Field Music may well slip under the radar this year, but if you're into music that suffers adjectives like 'sparkling' and 'jangly' then this is very much the record for you.

4 stars

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Mirrored by Battles

Apparently, Battles released two EPs in 2004, which their label, Warp, then re-released as a double disc set in '05. Apparently, these discs sent a substantial ripple through the music world, a world hungry for experimental rock and roll, notwithstanding occasional visits by Tool and TV on the Radio (although even Tool seem fairly mainstream these days, don't they?). Apparently, these guys were going to make the musical equivalent of a big middle finger to the establishment which claims rock stopped moving forward in 1967 by producing a gargantuan masterpiece.

Apparently, it's all true.

In Mirrored, Battles have produced one of those records that feels like it's about 20 years ahead of its time, as much at home among live instrumentation as with highly processed vocals, looped guitar and drum circling around each other and multilayered production. Even the cover art is reminiscent of what one's notion of a futuristic recording studio may look like.

Opening single 'Atlas', while utterly brilliant, a seven minute club stomper built around a metal rhythm section and twisted and every concievable musical affectation layered on top of it, isn't necessarily the best thing here. In fact, it's hard to view this record as more than a single recording, so seamlessly and languidly does one movement shift into another, breaks in the thrilling noise only thrown in as a submissive bow to modern rock conventions (none of any others, by the way, Battles saw fit to adhere to).

Bookends, 'Race: In' and 'Race: Out' are fitting opener and closer respectively, the latter opening in a grpahic dirge, then slowly shifting into an alternate universe version of it's sister at the beginning, while 'Race: In' shuffles in over urgent, chase-scene drumming before exploding at the midpoint.

In between are a series of thrilling adventures into sonic experimentalism that often conspire to leave the listener open-mouthed at the sheer audacity of the ideas being thrown out at every turn. However, despite all this pretense to high-art math-rock, at no point does Mirrored cease to be anything but highly accessible (in fact, don't be surprised if you hear 'Atlas' at the local nightspot sometime this year): at no point do Battles forget that the audience is listening.

Pity the band that sets out to make the veritable PhD of rock music, to make something that has never been done, as it almost always ends in failure. But when it works, as it has here, it just struggles to get any better.

4 1/2 stars

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Memory Man by Aqualung

Aqualung (aka Matt Hales with a little help from his brother Ben) have long garnered comparisons with Coldplay, much to the confusion of this writer, with the exception that they're both British and make mid- to slow-tempo heartfelt rock music. That's about it. However, upon hearing the intro to 'Cinderella', the opening track off Aqualung's newest release, Memory Man, with it's chiming guitar strumming, distant piano tinkling and pounding backbeat, I immediately begun to wince. While it is undeniably uplifting stuff, it screams of the weaker, derivative moments from 2006's excerable X&Y.
Then, suddenly, as the opening crescendo drops, what we have is a gentle, slightly disconcerting verse utterly drenched in reverb. And suddenly the loud bits make sense, stop sounding derivative and the whole song clicks into place. And that is what differentiates Aqualung from Messrs Martin and Bono (and the Edge) is the clear individualism of the tunes, and no clear yearning, burning desire to write another smash hit and sell a bucketload of records to 15 year olds and 25 year old bogans and chavs. Because make no mistake, there are moments of clear U2-ish-ness here, be it the gradual fadeout of 'Glimmer' or the Edge-y guitar picking and gut-busting chorus of 'Outside' (I swear he even sounds like Bono on some tracks). But, by record's end, you feel like you can forgive him the indulgence of a lazy pseudo-cover, as the highpoints more than make up for it, both in creativity and quality.
Much as Aqualung try to deny it on this record, it's when the tempo slows, the volume drops and instrumentation step back a little that the band(?) really shine. Gentle verses nestle between booming choruses, giving songs their emotional core ('Pressure Suit', 'Something to Believe In', which, incidentally, is another bit of potential U2-aping), which isn't to say that said choruses lack punch, but when everything slows down and Hales' slightly cracked falsetto comes to the fore, Aqualung find their place.
Importantly, though, is that Aqualung realise that they can't go on making the same slow, emotive tracks forever, so are looking to branch out. While the upbeat numbers aren't quite what it seems they were looking for, the willingness to push into uncharted waters (while tethered to the shore, granted) suggests that when the promised land is located, it will be beautiful indeed.

3 1/2 stars

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Friday, June 01, 2007

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga by Spoon

I'm a lucky man. Having managed to get my hands on Spoon's forthcoming record ahead of schedule, I've been privileged enough to have had it in my headphones all morning. And for fans who, like me, have been waiting breathlessly for the follow-up to 2005's Gimme Fiction and 2003's Kill the Moonlight, it is a wonderful pleasure to reveal that none of us will be disappointed. Spoon have, once again, delivered a stone cold classic. Whether this is the record will be the one to delver Spoon to the unwashed masses is debatable, as Spoon are perhaps too wilful, artistic, intelligent and (dare I say) good to ever achieve any international acclaim on the level that Coldplay enjoy or Snow Patrol are enjoying, it seems that everything Britt Daniel and Co. seem to touch has turned to gold over the past five years.

With titles such as 'You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb', 'Don't You Evah', 'Rhthm and Soul' and 'Black Like Me', it would seem clear that Daniel has immersed himself in hip-hop and been relentlessly texting his friends for the past two years. However, nothing could be further from the truth, with Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga feeling like it is exactly in the right place at the right time, the natural successor to it's two older siblings, with the only possible reference to 'black' music being the presence of a horn section on 'The Underdog'. What certainly remains is the band's uncanny ability to convert sparse, clean production into songs of great depth and atmosphere, merely with the single strum of guitar, burst of random noise recordings or series of hand claps (as heard on the contender for song of the year 'Finer Feelings').

In fact, small bursts of hitherto unheard instruments are an ongoing trend on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, be it Piano tinkles ('Don't Make Me a Target'), distorted vocals ('The Ghost of You Lingers', which is by far the greatest departure from 'Old Spoon', and one of the best songs on the album) or xylophone and horns ('You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb'), and that's just the first three tracks.

While probably failing to scale the lofty heights of predecessor Gimme Fiction, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga more than ably maintains a standard of excellence for Spoon that any band would kill for.

4 1/2 stars

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