Some album reviews

2009 is shaping up to be a year of many albums and few reviews. There certainly seems to be more around that I want to listen to than there was last year, including many records by old favourites. I’ve got a backlog of reviews to write, but I’ll try and clear some of that now rather than doing a round-up at the end of the year. Trouble is, a lot of records from returning artists come with high expectations attached, and mostly they’re not being met…

AC Newman – Get Guilty
Given that AC Newman’s extremely distinctive songs – built around convoluted, unobvious and technical, yet still somehow tuneful and poppy melodies – form the bedrock of all New Pornographers albums, his solo outings seem a bit redundant. This is particularly so here: the clattery instrumentation and slightly unpredictable mix of instruments is not unlike the sound on the New Pornographers’ last record, Challengers, which saw them retreat further into mid-paced chugging and away from the high-tempo style of earlier outings. Nonetheless I’ve found it rather enjoyable on both records: many of these songs smoulder without ever coming alive, which initially was frustrating, but after numerous listens seemed somehow right. I’d probably recommend the first two New Pornographers albums above this, but it’s still good.

Howling Bells – Radio Wars
This was a disappointment: producer Nigel Godrich has brought his usual sophisticated sound, but unfortunately the band couldn’t bring the songs. There are a few compelling moments – Golden Web, Cities Burning Down and Treasure Hunt particularly stick in the mind – but if anything this record just highlights how good the debut was. Juanita Stein’s beguiling voice remains a sweetener of course, but the songs on the debut album simply stick in the mind better. Pity.

Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
Difficult to know what to say about this, other than “another very good Neko Case album”. Perhaps that it seems a bit more open and optimistic than the dark and at times oppressive Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. Case has also developed the art of the short song that doesn’t outstay its welcome, and similarly the short album. It’s not much more than half an hour, but it’s captivating.

Super Furry Animals – Dark Days/Light Years
Still not totally sure about this. Released online first, it has an almost stop-gap feel to it, and seems much less measured than 2007’s Hey Venus; rather, the band seems to have gone into the studio, had fun and released the results. But with such a brilliant band, the results are inevitably going to be worth listening to: there are some great pop songs on here, but some others that seem like indulgent wibbling. I’m still trying to work out which is which. On further reflection, I reckon that SFA’s natural instinct is to produce long, rambling records, which are OK (this, Love Kraft), but when they focus and produce something more concise, the results are even better (Phantom Power, Hey Venus!).

The Decemberists – The Hazards Of Love
Goodness me. This is a bit of a trial – a lengthy concept album telling the story of some convoluted olde worlde love dynasty. Maybe. There’s a load of good tunes on here, and it’s a bit heavier than the Decemberists are known for. But ultimately it’s a suite of lengthy songs that would have been much more digestible in a straightforward form. As it is, the record weaves its way between they various storylines and musical motifs, in a way that’s no doubt well thought-out, but very demanding. I think I’ve only listened to it from start to finish about twice, but I enjoy dipping into it.

Pet Shop Boys – Yes
I question whether I should even bother writing about records when the Metro says it all. It described this album as being “like a greatest hits, but with new songs”. Exactly right: it sounds like, and is, a classic Pet Shop Boys album. Purely synthesised music often leaves me a bit cold, and even here I struggle a bit to retain my interest throughout – but that’s just me. I’m not sure that Xenomania have added much other than a dollop of traditional Pet Shop Boys sound – happily they’ve used the squelchy synth sounds they seem to favour quite sparingly. I’ve only got into the Pet Shop Boys a little recently, and I’m glad they’ve steered away from the rather chronic acoustic guitar-drive stuff of the 90s and more recently; much as I hesitate to applaud a band for playing to everyone’s expectations, the result here has been a triumph.

Doves – Kingdom of Rust
Hard to review. Another very good Doves album, rich, lush and epically melancholy, which as usual is more than the sum of its parts – the songs are so carefully crafted and sequenced that removing one from the context of the album always diminishes it. Being such an “albums band” looks an ever-more dicey prospect these days, but Doves remain a powerhouse both in the studio and the live arena as far as I’m concerned. Lovely stuff.

Noisettes – Wild Young Hearts
I’ve been impressed with this band ever since I encountered them (alongside Jack Penate, of whom more later) supporting Amy Winehouse a couple of years back. Superficially they looked like a garage rock trio, but there has always seemed to be a bit more going on than that. They have blossomed on this, their second album, which is an unabashed pop record. Don’t be fooled by the catchy but unrepresentative ad-driven hit Don’t Upset the Rhythm – the rest of the album is quite different, and frankly rather better than that single suggests. The title track alone is a two-minute epic, setting out the album’s theme of summers lost and fleeting love. Elsewhere they channel Amy Winehouse and This Charming Man to great effect. If there’s a snag, it’s that it’s maybe a bit too obviously poppy, and doesn’t repay too many listens. But a lot of great pop records fit into that category; this is just another, and is no less impressive for it.

Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career
This is a lovely record. Really really nice. Like its predecessor, Let’s Get Out of This Country, it has a lush, open sound to it, with gorgeous trilling strings, buckets of reverb, some delightful twangy guitar and the usual adornments of indie in the finest tradition – glockenspiels, tambourines, girl harmonies etc. Also like its predecessor, it is made up of often introspective, lovelorn songs in which Traceyanne Campbell contemplates her unhappy romantic adventures. The thing is… it’s not its predecessor; it’s just a new version of the same record. It’s a bit moot how much this matters. Maybe the songs here tip from the affectingly lovelorn into the repetitive and self-pitying… but not by much. They’re lovely songs… but they don’t quite have the impact of Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken, Country Mile and Razzle Dazzle Rose. Still, it’s a gorgeous record to listen to, even if it does seem to signal that Camera Obscura’s journey to develop their sound lasted three albums and has now stopped. The harshest thing you can say about this album is it makes it obvious just how superb the one before it was. I still can’t decide whether that’s a fault with this record or not.

Alessi’s Ark – Notes from the Treehouse
There’s a lot that’s dislikeable about this perfectly good record. I’m resentful of these gifted teenagers who come along and produce beautifully crafted records, just for being gifted teenagers. But I’m also not convinced, frankly: Alessi Laurent-Marke has written a load of slightly twee but likeable and sweet songs, presented here with an indie-country twang, that frankly is too smooth to have arisen by happy accident. This is a well-produced record, and I feel a bit manipulated for liking it. And although Alessi has a lovely breathy voice, I’m not convinced her songs bear many repeated listens either. A nice but superficial summery record.

The Maccabees – Wall of Arms
Unlike some of the records above, the Maccabees’ sophomore effort has a lot of listens in it – it has established itself on my MP3 player as the thing I listen to when I can’t decide what else to listen to. Comparisons to Arcade Fire without all the strings would be obvious, but not without merit. It’s played pretty hard and straight by a superficially conventional guitar-band line-up of sounds, but for all that, it has a real sense if driving purpose. I was actually surprised to learn, after listening to it for the first time, that it was produced by Markus Dravs, the man who presided over the disappointment of Arcade Fire’s curiously muted and muffled-sounding Neon Bible. I’ve also been grappling with the curious cover to this record: I think I’ve concluded it’s a good cover, but not for this album, which seems to me to demand artwork more abstract and dense if it’s to fit the music. Overall, though, it’s an impressive outing from a band I’d previously lumped in with all those boring white male guitar bands whose names I get mixed up. Their Glastonbury set strongly suggested it’s a big step on from their debut, whose material sounded pretty uninteresting by comparison.

Jarvis Cocker – Further Complications
There’s no getting around it: this is a disappointing record. Not just because Steve Albini’s approach to production seems to entail letting the band play basically live and forsaking any effort to make it sound interesting, but more fundamentally because the songs aren’t up to snuff. Thematically, Angela seems a re-tread of Sylvia from This Is Hardcore; many of the others are utterly forgettable. No amount of puns – of which there’s an unusual number here – can make up for the dullness of much of the material. Only on I Never Said I Was Deep does Jarvis approach his usual wit; but mostly he seems to lack something to sing about these days, beyond a certain middle-aged ennui. His live performance still counters this, and with Cocker leaping around on-stage and the volume at maximum, these songs make a certain brutal sense. But if he’s just looking for an excuse to present his dance moves, I’d rather have had a Jarvis Cocker Dancercise DVD than this album.

Junior Boys – Begone Dull Care
There’s a song on this eight-track electronica record that has pedal steel guitar on it (the fourth cut, Dull to Pause). I should love it for that alone. But my feelings towards this album are a bit more complicated. Its predecessor, So This Is Goodbye, has turned out to be one of my favourite records of all: it’s a bewitching set of warm and melancholy electronica, and quite lovely. Getting such feeling out of synthesisers is a rare trick, and it’s not one that the follow-up ever particularly attempts, save perhaps for on Sneak a Picture. The vibe is still mellow here: there are no stomping floor fillers here, but there’s certainly a harder edge to many of the songs, not least the pronounced groove of Hazel. If Hot Chip’s next album is indeed made up of end-of-the-night tunes, it might well end up sounding like this. But I wonder if hot Chip might manage to get the warmth and the danceability in happier balance here; I’m not quite sure what this album sets out to do, still less whether it succeeds or not. But the long tracks have plenty of time to stretch out and unfold… maybe too much. It’s nice, but it washes over me a bit. Somehow, it’s not as acute as its predecessor or as demanding of your feet as a full-blooded dance record.

Immaculate Machine – High on Jackson Hill
Canada’s Immaculate Machine started life as a bassless three-piece with a super line in energetic, clattery but literate and well-written songs. With their third album, 2007’s Fables, they seemed to tighten their sound, cut down the bluster and produce pop songs so well honed they almost seemed to lose a bit of their spark at times (good album, don’t get me wrong, just not my favourite). The process has continued here: this is a much more restrained and melancholic set, albeit still led by Brooke Gallupe, with Kathryn Calder in close support. Kathryn’s voice remains a particular strength of the group – I could listen to her sing anything. But drummer Luke Kozlowski has left, and the band have transformed into a more gentle five-piece outfit. Much as I’ve enjoyed the album, I’m more interested in hearing this line-up’s next record, in a way, as High on Jackson Hill seems to be a collection of very nice  songs, and the new line-up hasn’t made much of an impact on them (that I can detect, anyway). Kathryn, interestingly, has set up a solo Myspace page, with some lovely demos on it; a solo record from her would also be extremely welcome – quite understandably she has, I gather, been focusing more on her mother’s battle with motor neurone disease than music recently, but I look forward to whatever her next musical venture turns out to be.

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