Archive for July, 2008

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Pagan paens

July 26, 2008

If you’ve had your ear to ground, or really just if you’re on the internet, you’ve probably heard some of the buzz around Seattle’s Fleet Foxes.  They’re pretty much seen as the saviours of hipster folk pop – if that’s a genre urgently in need of saving.

For the most part, they’ve made a very pretty, bucolic album.  It sounds a lot like My Morning Jacket circa At Dawn or any other number of countrified acts that love their pop as much as they love steel guitars.  It’s not going to blow many minds that have experienced MMJ or the first Band of Horses album, for example.  But again, it’s mighty pretty-sounding.

The real stand-out to these ears, and the main point in the case for Fleet Foxes’ continued existence, is track two, “White Winter Hymnal”.  It starts off a bit like a fireside round singalong, a bit Brian Wilson, a bit hippie commune.  It’s the sense of unironic, Age of Aquarius exuberance that lifts up my spirits when I hear it.

Title notwithstanding, it doesn’t sound especially wintry.  Maybe it’s the sound of Spring, when the weather is just warm enough to get out and about in nature.  Fleet Foxes have given me just the song for emerging from hibernation.

Fleet Foxes – “White Winter Hymnal”

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The valley of the low son

July 24, 2008

If it’s hard living up to a famous parent, try living up to Bob Dylan.  Of course, Jakob Dylan must have given up ages ago.  Twelve years back he was a one hit wonder with The Wallflowers, now mostly forgotten.  Everyone would have written him off ages back, which at least takes away the pressure to perform.

It’s into this world of low expectations, that Dylan’s solo record of 2008 emerges.  Seeing Things is pretty unassuming, too.  No big rock numbers a la The Wallflowers.  No obvious tributes to dad’s heyday.  Dylan has recorded an acoustic folk album with a very moody, gothic sensibility.

The most obvious touchstone is Crooked Fingers’ darker-than-dark Americana.  Dylan even has the same semi-forced, awkward intonation and accent as Eric Bachmann and he loves to overuse the same words like “evil”.  Sometimes he’s more bluesy and catchy (like on “All Day and All Night”), but it’s a very restrained album and not a very happy one.

I’m not sure how many people are going to embrace this disc, but I hope it finds its market.  There’s certainly a place in my CD collection for a talented singer and guitarist who wants to explore the dark side.

Jakob Dylan – “Valley of the Low Sun”

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Bands I thought were hardcore before I heard them

July 21, 2008

1. Urge Overkill

2. Massive Attack

3. Primal Scream

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From Burma to the suburbs

July 17, 2008

I’m always going to cheer on the Aussie indie musician.  If it isn’t hard enough getting a hearing on a small label, it’s only harder when you’re from a small country – and not even a very trendy one at that.  So count me as a champion of the underdog, Tamas Wells being a case in point.

I mean, the guy clearly has no interest in musical fame.  He’s spent most of the last five years in Burma with his aid-worker wife – not a fast track destination for musicians.  He puts out impossibly twee folk music about ordinary people dealing with dilemmas like brown bedspreads and crappy jobs.  He tours major Australian cities every couple of years, playing one gig in each town only.

Fame might find him this time regardless, because his latest album Two Years In April is something to marvel at.  Moving away from the mid-nineties-ish tweeness of A Plea En Vendredi, Tamas has brought his sound up to…2004, I suppose.  He’s gone for the fireside, banjo-led reveries of Sufjan Stevens’ Seven Swans or Iron & Wine’s Our Endless Numbered Days – and he’s come bloody close to them for quality.

Wells’ voice is less remarkable than Sufjan’s or Sam Beam’s, but it’s idiosyncratic and totally listenable.  His sing-song, repetitive vocal style is pretty compelling and doesn’t get old nearly as fast as it should.  Wells played and sang almost all the parts and the simple interlocking instrumentation sounds complex and wondrous.  In fact, this sounds much more like an album composed in a shack with intermittent electricity
than the last album, which apparently was written that way.

Maybe after this album he won’t be the underdog anymore, but it won’t make me love him any less.

Tamas Wells – “Fine, Don’t Follow A Tiny Boat For A Day”

Tamas Wells – “The Day That She Drowned, Her Body Was Found”

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Hush hush

July 12, 2008

It’s too early to really say, but 2008 feels like the year that a lot of quiet acts are going even quieter. Hammock’s Maybe They Will Sing For Us Tomorrow was their most zen-like album yet – you can barely make out instruments. Ellen Allien’s Sool finds a techno producer moving away from beats almost entirely.

Perhaps the most surprising is the young post-rock collective Gregor Samsa. Their first full-length, 2006’s 55:12, was a great balance between the off-centre classical of Rachel’s and the quiet indie pop of Low. The songs came from nowhere and often disappeared to the same place, but there were memorable melodies and clear vocals.

On Rest, the vocals are so hushed they’re barely more than whispers. If the instrumentation is still complex and orchestral, it doesn’t have any of the crash and bombast. The most amazing thing is how effectively it holds your attention. If anything, the quietness forces you to crouch down and plant your ear next to the speaker to try and understand what’s happening.

Where much more dramatic albums will fade from view, I think the already-faded Rest will stick around.

Gregor Samsa – “Ain Leuh”

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Great Danes

July 3, 2008

Me? I’m a sucker for a good pop tune. For all my indie affectations, sit me down in front of a fun video clip from some dorky pop group and I’ll probably be singing along in seconds. Unlike commercial rock, which seems to suck all the passion and life out of a vital genre, commercial pop can be a blast.

Still, I don’t always embrace the poptimist buzz-groups. Girls Aloud for example – well I can take or leave them. Now Alphabeat, they’re a group I can get behind. They’ve got guitars, they sound like the best bits of the 80s strung together. They’re Scandinavian (Danish to be exact) and that’s immediate pop points from me.

Alphabeat – “Fascination”

Some of their singles are dynamite. “Fascination” is the most energetic blast of pop sunshine I’ve heard in years. “Fantastic 6” sounds like Bis doing the soundtrack to High School Musical 5. The album, This Is Alphabeat, kind of trails off after a few tracks but that’s not surprising. I mean, it took Phoenix three albums to get consistent and Alphabeat are really only just starting out.

If you haven’t heard them already, then now’s your chance.

Alphabeat – “Fantastic 6”

Alphabeat – “Fascination”

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(Good) Cover Version

July 1, 2008

Covering obscure songs is an odd choice in some ways. After all, it doesn’t have the instant-recognition factor that will lead to major sales. And the fans that know the song are probably so damn precious about it that they’ll hate you for attempting it.

That was what happened to Mark Kozelek’s Tiny Cities (all Modest Mouse covers) and to a lesser extent the Twilight Singers’ She Loves You (various artists). They couldn’t ride the gimmicky wave that say Cake’s “I Will Survive” owned, and they managed to piss off a few indie purists along the way.

I think the new covers album by avant-folkie Adem should manage to get away with it, but only because the quality is really high. The choices for his album Takes are pretty left-field and mostly from the 90s/early 00s. Nothing too sacred there – but maybe the hipsters will still hate it.

A couple of favourite tracks of mine that he’s attempted are Pinback’s “Loro” – hardly a cult classic, even, but a great song – and Low’s “Laser Beam”. Pinback is pretty easy to pull off and to be fair, Adem doesn’t really change things. Low is harder, mainly because “Laser Beam” is such a classic example of Mimi Parker’s astonishing vocals. Still, he gives it a woozy soul that works almost as effectively. With this album, the initial impression may be that he hasn’t done anything remarkable – but each listen will turn up different angles.

Really, you should have a listen to all of it. There’s some Yo La Tengo, some Smashing Pumpkins and a brilliant Aphex Twin reworking.

Adem – “Loro”

Adem – “Laser Beam”