I gave up on regular album and live reviews shortly after I started this blog, even though when I ran a separate website I succeeded in listing my listening habits fairly religiously – not least every new album I bought in 2006. As a slight substitute, you can view what I’m listening to on my PC via Last FM in the left-hand sidebar on this blog (though obviously this is a limited view of my listening – most of the time I spend listening to music is while commuting, via my MP3 player – plus it is temperamental and has stopped and started working several times even in the time it has taken me to write this post). So while I don’t pretend this is a promise to return to my obsessive reviewing of a few years ago, I have been taken by a whim to review the few new albums I’ve acquired so far this year.
This is not least because I’m in an unusually serious disagreement with Dan Paton about the M Ward album. To me, it sounds like a logical progression from his last solo outing Post War, away from that record’s predecessor, Transistor Radio. The delicate guitar playing is sidelined still further, and the folksy instrumentals now totally removed. Instead it is a consistent stab at a pop record.
Now, an M Ward pop record is probably never going to be as satisfying as one of his more rootsy albums, but it still functions pretty well. Overall it is characterised by a rather languid feel and some straightforward arrangements. Ward’s tunes are reliably pretty, and his accomplished guitar playing adorns the songs in an unostentatious but well-judged manner – few songs pass without some small delight of a hook or flourish. Synths and strings are smeared across some songs to provide atmospheric effect rather than to provide arrangements on which the listener can focus, and to this end they generally succeed.
At times it heads into soft rock territory: the closing instrumental track is utterly gorgeous, but does hint at Dire Straits (no bad thing in my book). I also have to disagree with Dan about the Lucinda Williams collaboration Oh Lonesome Me – the melody is strong and the slide guitar framing it downright lovely; the sudden unexpected arrival of Williams’ vocals (I bought the MP3 version, so didn’t have advance notice from any inlay) intrigues still further. Overall, I’m not going to argue this is Ward’s best work, which must still surely be Transistor Radio, but I feel it hangs together rather better than Post War, which now seems like a halfway house between the two.
A record I can sum up much more easily is the disappointing debut by Fight Like Apes. Occasionally it hints at the off-the-wall oddball lyrics of McLusky – a band the Apes have covered – but generally ends up as tiresome quirkiness for its own sake. There are a lot of loud guitars and screams, and at its best it undeniably works: Tie Me Up With Jackets was a strong single. But on the whole, I suspect this is a record I would have liked a lot more ten years ago when I had heard a lot less indie music than I have now – to my seventeen-year-old ears, it would probably have sounded inspired.
The remaining two records are both outings on which I have mixed feelings so far. The debut album by Emmy the Great has a lot to recommend it: it is never less than tuneful, and the performances from the musicians, and Emmy’s vocals, are always winning – at first blush the backing sounds ramshackle and clattery, but on reflection is it tightly arranged and played, giving the record a distinctive sound, both acoustic and rich. Lyrically, the record is confessional to the point of being harrowing: as the title suggests, it is a document of a “serious relationship”, now over. The thing I can’t decide is whether I find it so honest as to be uncomfortable, or just self-indulgent emotional wanking; either way, much as I enjoy listening to this record and think it is very good, there is something about it that sits awkwardly with me.
Finally, the new album from Morrissey… I approached it with low expectations, and this was perhaps for the best. I’m enjoying it a lot: it has a loudness, an openness and an energy that makes it much more listenable and immediate than its claustrophobic predecessor Ringleader of the Tormentors (albeit that the dense production on that record was a fascinating listen). But… is it any good? I am not convinced the songs are much of an improvement on Ringleader, which found Moz on rather predictable, limited and repetitive lyrical form. I still maintain his comeback album You Are the Quarry had a greater concentration of high calibre, memorable songs on it than probably any other single Moz record – even the inevitable “filler” tracks seemed a cut above their counterparts on Ringleader. Perhaps I need to give this record some more listens: it is certainly a very confident outing from Morrissey; at the moment, I am not sure whether his confidence is sweeping me up in the record, or whether it is truly justified. I suspect the answer is that it’s somewhere between good and middling – but I can’t tell where yet.