Friday, November 30, 2007

The ghost that carried us away...

Proud though I am of UK music you may have realised by now that I'm almost equally at home delving into that which comes from beyond these shores. Somewhere, almost in the middle of the nowhere that divides Europe and North America, is a nation that in its entirety has a population (~300,000) no greater than a modest city or just about 60% of that of the state of Wyoming. The latest from this land of musicians that has come to my attention is the band Seabear...

In musical terms Iceland is somewhere strange indeed: in 2007 the better known artists Bjork and Sigur Ros have both released much anticipated albums and we should not forget other Icelandic artists such as GusGus (who - first pub quiz fact - are unique as the only Icelandic act to have had a #1 hit single in Mexico) and their erstwhile female vocalist Hafdis Huld. She is now a solo artist and released her first solo album, Dirty Paper Cup, in 2006 (and it was one of my top-ten albums of 2006) and bands, such as Múm that have taken a more acoustic approach to their music.

Seabear are another Icelandic act worthy of note and this album, their first, sees them recently signed to the Berlin-based independent label Morr Music. It is actually sung in English nearly free of any accent, as if that matters, which is actually by far the least of its virtues because it is almost impossible not to like every one of the twelve tracks; at least at the moment track 2, Cat Piano, has my vote but only by a whisker.

There is more: the album is currently readily available on 12" vinyl and their recent single is also available on 7" and is a cover version of a song that one might deem should never be covered by anyone --- it is nothing more sacred than the post-punk angst of Teenage Kicks by The Undertones. Despite the apparent minefield it has actually been widely covered down the years and KT Tunstall sometimes performs it in her live set. Here is some additional, and quite useless, pub-quiz trivia...
Teenage Kicks was apparently John Peel's favourite song ever and, apocryphal as that may be, it was certainly performed at his funeral and also was, on his show in 1978, the the first song that was ever deliberately played twice back-to-back on BBC Radio 1.

Whatever happened to Fefe Dobson?

Well it is now quite a while since I posted the last update so here, at long last, is a new one: Return & Revenge.
It's about the new album, which is entitled Joy.
Fefe who??? Quite! [For the latest that I know see here.]

If you can remember this, her 2003 eponymous début album, then I suspect you do know who...

Yes, it was not huge and that was certainly true here in the UK but I think it was good nonetheless. Good enough indeed that Island (Universal) went ahead with the recording and production of her second album, Sunday Love, only to then terminate her contract and not release the album either. Or at least that is what I gather happened...
A few copies almost certainly do exist but the asking price for those I've seen offered for sale is in excess of £500 (very roughly $1050 & €700). still list it but only as available from third parties at the above ridiculous prices. It would appear that even the cover artwork was completed, which I think only adds to the suspicion that it was shelved at the very last possible moment, and here it is.

I assume that Island/Universal are simply refusing to grant a licence on the copyright of the recording to anyone else willing to release it. So for an artist, stuck in the worst of all worlds and stymied by major label woes, this must seem about as cynical and demoralising as it can get for had they binned her just before the album was recorded she could have touted it elsewhere (subject only to some rather less overwhelming issues).
This is clearly nowhere near the whole story and I'd be fascinated to know more even if it is, like much of the above, only hearsay and speculation.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Heroes & Thieves - still no release in the UK!

I've been waiting for this since forever but there is still apparently no official UK release, and it was exactly the same with Harmonium three years ago. Quite what is going on here is a mystery to me but, such nonsense notwithstanding, I now have a genuine US release that is distributed by Universal Music. That it had to come from the US is merely an annoyance that can again be blamed, almost certainly, on major label machinations and not the artist.

Vanessa Carlton - Heroes & Thieves (2007)
(click image to view at 900 x 900 px.)

The album itself it is as stunning as it should be and a true progression from the first two, Be Not Nobody (2001) and Harmonium (2004). It is less obviously piano-heavy than the latter but also rather more assured than the former. It is quite possible that the reason Harmonium sold poorly compared with her début was, at least in part, because it was less easily accessible to the myriad floating-buyers and maybe even lyrically unpalatable (the lead single White Houses in particular) to the conservatively minded. I actually, and not just to be awkward, much prefer Harmonium to Be Not Nobody and so I can certainly see where Heroes & Thieves is going.

She has certainly not sold out but the piano aspect, although very much still there, is not so predominant. Her songwriting is actually at most only a little less quirky than it was on Harmonium but this album is less likely to provoke a boycott by the conservative element and actually marks a return to favour in the US. The odd thing is that I suspect the factor that, at least in part, has facilitated this is that the album was produced by none other than Linda Perry -
a former member of 'Four Non-Blondes' - who is also no stranger to a conservative backlash, as she experienced first hand after a US TV appearance, but has since become one of the most reliable US pop producers (and also songwriters) of recent times and particularly so for female artists.

I haven't really settled on favourite album tracks yet but, having listened to it several times now, I like it every bit as much as Harmonium overall and thus also more than Be Not Nobody. My current opinion is that it that there isn't a weak track on this album and it just seems more natural and less fractious than the latter and also so much more complete than the former. Excellent though Harmonium is, and I still listen to it regularly and not only for its highlight tracks, Heroes & Thieves is thus probably even better!
Interestingly enough track 5 - The One - features what might seem a rather risky undertaking that works beyond the extent that it doesn't seem in the least out of place. The co-vocalist on this track is an icon of 1970s pop - none other than Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac (and also considerable solo) fame.

Heroes & Thieves is more commercial than Harmonium, that is certain, but the truth is that doesn't necessarily mean it can't also be better.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

2008 - You are old when...

...policemen look young; at least that was the traditional answer!

I'm now thinking that music has the 'thin blue line' on the defensive. There have, for certain, been many very young recording artists for decades but now we have those that both write and record (and sometimes produce as well)! That would not mean much if they were not making waves.
Now they are, therefore it matters a great deal, and they may possibly have a surprising influence in 2008. Here are two that I suspect we will soon hear much more of:

I've been on about Laura Marling for months and with, I believe, good reason. God knows; modern English folk needs and richly deserves the likes of her!

Now (17th November) even NME has seen fit to decide that she might be the one to re-energise UK folk for the next generation and that is something that is long overdue. My advice is to buy the EP My Manic and I on 7" while you still can do so affordably! There are no covers of trad. folk and no quasi-traditional folk either, just four new tracks. They are, in fact, all rather remarkable and that would still be true even if they were not all written and performed by a seventeen-year-old!
Two of them were recorded live and she already has a quite awesome reputation for live performance.
Her, as yet untitled, début album is due to be released by EMI on February 4, 2008 (subject, of course, to industry machinations).

On the subject of mini albums (and this one is a six-track 33 rpm 12”, but also available on CD) I’m finding it difficult to find one I like any better than Follow Me Down, the début release by Poppy & The Jezebels, which I only mentioned fairly recently although it was originally released about six months ago. It is, to say the very least, surprising…
... and they also write their own songs but their sound is more pop-rock grounded, is influenced the rather old (The Velvet Underground), combined with the fairly new (Cat Power) and both nefariously filtered through The Pixies, their more electro-peers but then with their own new twists on rock, electro and acoustic stuff on top of that!

You know it makes no sense whatsoever, on the face of it is therefore an utter mystery, but that actually
isn't quite true ...

Follow Me Down (2007) sounds entirely logical.

In fact it is an incredibly accomplished début (and it is even available on 12" vinyl) regardless of the fact that the average age of the band members is still just about sixteen. It does make perfect sense too - they simply decided not to attempt to be be the next girl-pop band and who could blame them? They could however still be a surprise in 2008 and already have a reputation for conjuring live tricks that go beyond the ordinary. The album is released on Reveal Records.

Would I like to see these artists live in 2008? Yes. Both please! (and also plenty more that I could add...)

Note added 27th November:
I've added a new, more relevant, image that is of the vinyl version and also wish to add some facts that I overlooked. The vinyl release is limited (but still available affordably) to the extent that all copies are numbered by hand there is a poster included that is individually signed by all four members of the band. I thought it might be quite good but, having listened to it loads of times now, I was wrong again and it is actually so much better than that.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Surprises: the obvious and the actual..

The title is, to an extent, the subtext of 2007 for me. This time last year I anticipated going to a festival no more than I anticipated being run down by a cyclist; at least I decided on the former and had a few days, rather than at most a couple of seconds, to prepare for it. I actually worried much more about the former, as I had some time to do so, but when it happened the itself event itself was very much better and certainly more willingly memorable.

The better has tended to involve music and, within weeks, it will be up to me to say what I think are my favourite albums of 2007. I actually do still regularly listen to all the albums in last year's list (so I'm obviously pleased with that as I can at least predict what I'll keep liking fairly reliably) but now I have a whole load more too, some of which I have failed to mention in the meantime, that clamour for attention.
Last year was the first time I did this and it seemed quite an easy choice then. This year it does not look such an easy prospect. This is not because music has, in my opinion at least, gone bad in 2007 but rather the opposite! I feel the pressure more this year and at least partly because there is a greater diversity now known to me that is worthy of consideration. It also leads me to say that I think that most of those who do claim that music has taken a turn for the worse in 2007 are, yet again at least very largely, victims of their inability to perceive that, as it has always done, music changes continuously. What you like is almost certainly out there somewhere - it would so be totally boring any other way - and what you need to do is find it!

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Ghost of Christmas Past...

I like Christmas, when it actually arrives, but with the six weeks leading up to it I have various problems. I'm clearly getting old as it seems a case of wishing six weeks of one's life away; for kids that's probably fine but for the rest of us doesn't that merely seem a waste of time?
On the music front it is, rather than 'Christmas Cheer', more a case of 'Christmas Fear' - a deadly serious industry battle for the mysterious kudos associated (at least in the UK) with "The Christmas # 1" (single) and the hearts and minds of those who buy CDs (or whatever) only at this time and for, mostly younger, family members of whose musical tastes they understandably have little or no comprehension. I don't actually entirely understand my own, so attempting to second-guess such things on behalf of others hardly seems a credible undertaking.

On 'reality TV' there is a parade of wannabes and their gang-masters in behest of the major labels. Deadly twins both and equally Dickensian in their tortuous ventures towards assuaging their vices - for the former the holy grail of 'celebrity', for the latter 'bankability' - and between them there is precious little to discern. A few achieve it, fewer still go on to make a career of it and the odd one goes further still. To be honest that applies to both sides pretty equally, except that some are more equal than others. Those already on the industry side tend to start out better off and with the lion's share of the decision-making power. It has ever been thus...

The compilation "Now That's What I Call Christmas" will be playing, yet again, in every shop and this year the most successful 'Christmas #1" artists ever' (1996,7 &8) - a.k.a. The Spice Girls - are back in the reckoning but it could be worse, I suppose, as
there is inevitably a new release by Sir Cliff Richard.
There will also be numerous other compilations, some released by the behemoths of decades past and they are not always without real merit, particularly as an introduction to those artists for anyone not already familiar with their work. One trend in 2007 (that I totally failed to see coming) was the rising popularity of certain bands from the 1970s: amongst the prominent are, perhaps least surprisingly giving their high-profile 2007 reunion concert appearance, Pink Floyd but also Black Sabbath and Thin Lizzy. I certainly don't need any compilations of the latter two bands as I have almost all of it already.

That includes some possibly unusual items. Before Thin Lizzy moved to the Vertigo label for the their fourth album, 'Nightlife' (1974), they were signed to Decca Recordings. In those days promotional copies for review by radio DJs were specially pressed 7" vinyl , often in the format of a 45 rpm EP.
This one was produced for the release of Thin Lizzy's album 'Vagabonds Of The Western World', their last album released by Decca, in 1973.

The A-side consists of ' Vagabonds Of The Western World' and 'The Rocker', which was to be a career-long live favourite, and the B-side has 'Gonna Creep Up On You' and 'Little Girl In Bloom'.
That is enough nostalgia for now but it does prompt me to say that this a good time to delve into all that you had neglected before, whether that is this year or even decades ago.
Just in case you had forgotten, and I had until just this evening, reacquaint yourself with Thin Lizzy's first album released on Vertigo in the UK (on Mercury/Phonogram in the US), which was 'Nightlife' (1974). It is readily, and cheaply, available on CD and it sounds as good now as it always has. If you can be bothered to track down an original vinyl copy, and that is what I'm listening to right now (actually an original Mercury one from the USA), then all I can say is good for you!
This another temporary image and I'll try to add a better one later this weekend.
That's better - 17th November.

This is the 1974 US version of Nightlife as released on Mercury.
[Click on it for a larger image as is now a common feature here.]

'Live and Dangerous' (1978) still remains one of the best live albums I've got. There are indeed many who would say that it is one of the best live albums ever - see numerous reviews on-line - and I have to say that I'm pretty much down with that. It is also serves as a fine compilation of their best output from Nightlife up until that point!
Here is a more difficult challenge - but it is purely as a matter of fun - and that is to try and divine what kinds of music and maybe even (if I/you/we were feeling brave) those artists that will be big in 2008!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Applause, Cheer, Boo, Hiss

This is another album I've decided to buy entirely unheard but, for that matter, who would think of that title let alone consider it for their début album? Almost certainly a band that has already got through five bass players and a drummer and all that before even releasing their first album to the wider world! They are a three-piece but the one constant and defining presence is vocalist Elizabeth Powell who also handles six-string duties and, in this regard, some reviewers across the Atlantic have compared her to Charlotte Hatherley and that is no bad thing in my opinion.

Needless to say the band in question, Land Of Talk, is yet another that comes from Montreal and, quite honestly, that matters just as much as, quite truthfully, it should not.

And she did a damn good job with the artwork too...

I, for one, can't wait to hear it. Needless to say it is on order, and at a total bargain price, so I'll report back as soon as I have it.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Cardiff is where the sŵn shines at night!

It all makes more sense when you know that 'sŵn' means 'sound' in Welsh and that the (indoor) Sŵn Festival is taking place in venues across Cardiff this weekend. I rather wish I was there but originally, for reasons of a prior commitment, I couldn't really make it. As that fell through I actually could have been! What is worse is that the list of artists includes two I mentioned a couple of weeks ago - The Duke Spirit and Sons and Daughters. Well, at least I've got their new vinyl releases as a consolation and here is one of them...

The Ex Voto EP, on 10" vinyl, signed by all five band members.

The Ex-Voto EP is an indication of the direction that the second album from the London five-piece, entitled Neptune and recorded in America, is likely to take and that would seem to be somewhat less intensely heavy than was Cuts Across The Land (2005). When heard live then I suspect that it might be less so but it is still stunning. Not much has changed otherwise; Liela Moss is still singing in her distinctive style and the four others are still (largely) keeping her covetousness for their instruments at bay! I saw them live in at 'The Astoria' in London in May 2005 and it was an absolutely blistering performance.
Not so long ago I mentioned their December 2006 7"-only (at least in a physical format) single 'Covered in Love', which was a tribute single to Desmond Dekker and Arthur Lee. The 7" (Velo Records) has rather sensitive cover versions of '007 Shanty Town' from the former and 'A House Is Not A Motel' from the latter, while the download version has four tracks. The others are Jessie Mae Hemphill’s ‘I’m So Glad’ and another track by Love, 'A Message To A Pretty'.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Letters, Letters... wonderfully weird!

Once upon a time, not so long ago, letters in the mail were the main form of communication.
Letters, Letters have, on their eponymous début, messed with this perception and all the misunderstandings that words can convey...

The band comes from Montréal (how near inevitable does that seem) but they also have help from Chicago. does not appear to know about this release yet while does, but only on CD. Don't however, even for one moment, think that we in the UK are on the losing end of this particular game. The album is released by 'Type Recordings', as many strange but good things are, and they have released it as a 12" LP on vinyl. This is available only in the UK and limited to just 500 copies; all of them pressed in strawberry-red clear vinyl!
The music on the album is I think, and this is after just three listens to one of the aforementioned vinyl copies, a new take on what I can best describe as dirty low-fi electronica; it has much instrumental variety and merit but also the very interesting addition of both male and female vocals, sometimes both together in the same song. That does not mean something bad, very far from it in fact, but for a 'Type Recordings' release to have any vocals at all is really rather remarkable.
Now you can understand why I'm unwilling, as I mentioned earlier this week, to be tempted into making my 'Best Albums of 2007' selection so early in the year. I'm not saying this album will be in that list but I'm certainly not prepared to exclude new possibilities just because it is the start of November.

I should have, in fact, added another 'Type Recordings' release to my post yesterday that considered music for autumn and winter nights. That is Le Fumeur de Ciel by the Parisian artist Julien Neto, who has released under various other monikers and on assorted labels, which was released in 2005 but is now available on 12" LP for the first time. It is a wonderful concoction of electronica, melded with dusty acoustic samples, and the album is entirely instrumental. France is a real, yet often unrecognised, force when it comes to this and related kinds of ambient music. I have reviewed Colleen et les Boîtes à Musique already and I am rather tempted to buy a copy of the Colleen album The Golden Morning Breaks. (These are both released on the Manchester-based The Leaf Label.)

Monday, November 05, 2007

Halloween -- instrumental rot -- To Rococo Rot -- or rot in hell?

I've been asked recently what I thought about 2007 and what I might expect of 2008. If I were able to do the latter with any reliability then I most probably would not be doing the job that I do now.
As it is only the start of November I'm going to keep my partly evolved thoughts, such as they are, a secret for now and focus on other music I have and like. I had intended to compile a playlist for Halloween but I never got around to doing it. In fact it seems that it doesn't matter at all as it will be just as appropriate for all the dark winter nights, bonfires, feasts, fireworks and the like regardless of what the remembrance is for.
Lyrically this kind of situation is a minefield but there are plenty willing to take the challenge however. Instrumental rock and pop is rather conveniently in the throes of a revival and, while it has its roots in earlier times, I think it still has a great deal to offer.

For spooky listening just start here (and suggest your own favourites):

Rock It To The Moon - Electrelane (1998)

Yes, it is almost ten years since this was released and it was their first album but this is still so good. There are no decipherable lyrics (except on the 'hidden track' at the end) but that is no problem! There are human voices on some, on the first track there is just a dog barking, but the arrangements are amazing.

Far more recent (2007), and perhaps rather more electronic, is abc123 by To Rococo Rot.

This EP (an 8-track 45 rpm vinyl 12") is released by Domino Records and it is well worth having.
What is more, and particularly if you find it too cheerful, try playing it at 33 rpm instead; while rather different in mood it still seems to sound authentic!

If you really crave absolute authenticity, and a desire to rot in hell circa 1970, then Black Sabbath and the albums Black Sabbath and Paranoid are prerequisite and these should really be on original vinyl (Vertigo). That would take some beating!
November 9:
That temporary image is no more! Here is an image that is the real deal instead.

The album was released over thirty-seven years ago and, quite coincidentally, on the very same day that I started at primary school aged almost 4½! I don't remember the original release, of course, but the image above is taken, notwithstanding, from the cover of an original 'Vertigo' vinyl copy from 1970 that I now have. (Click the image - as often is the case in this blog - for a larger version of the image that, in this case, is 800 x 800 pixels.) To take the story to the present I actually took this image this evening using the original vinyl album, a digital camera and nothing else particularly clever.