Sunday, January 18, 2009

Of Montreal – Skeletal Lamping

If you didn’t know anything about Of Montreal, Skeletal Lamping’s packaging in a seemingly never-ending fold-out of technicolour hippy psychedelia would give you a good clue of the musical trip you are about to embark on. One of the most eccentric bands of the Elephant 6 movement (which includes The Apples in Stereo, The Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel); Of Montreal’s albums have been called everything from “frustratingly inconsistent” to “fantastically surprising” but what’s true for everyone is that it’s unlikely that you’ll be ever bored or be able to predict their next move. Skeletal Lamping is named after brutal animal hunting practice and although this album is not about that the band makes lyrical and stylistic parallels with the content and its spotlight exploration of human sexuality. To do this leader of the group, Kevin Barnes, a married white guy, takes on his alter-ego as a black transsexual named Georgie Fruit. I’m sure we all saw that coming.

Skeletal Lamping is overflowing with musical detours and unexpected corner-turns within the framework (I use that term very loosely) of party-friendly surrealist pop. Sounding like an indie version of Prince performing in a rainbow-coloured disco held in a wind-tunnel with Panda Bear and Hunky Dory-era David Bowie, it’s softcore, pumping, reverb-laden, hardcore and rather brilliant fun. It’s also multi-textured and endlessly surprising, like how they drop in a gentle piano piece (Touched Something’s Hollow) followed immediately by the uptempo An Eluardian Instance complete with Beach Boys harmonies and cabaret trumpets.

With Of Montreal’s patchwork musical styles it’s often hard to know where one song ends and the next one begins and Skeletal Lamping is a bit like a multi-album opus on one CD as they fearlessly do whatever the hell they want to. But, at its core, it is infectious pop music that keeps you coming back for more. It would probably take about 100 listens to approach fluency in this fragmented phantasm of a musical language, but here’s some better advice – set your brain to shuffle and enjoy.

Wayne Davidson

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Sia – Some People Have Real Problems

You’d never guess it from the pre-school cover design and bizarre booklet photos but Australian ex-pat Sia Furler‘s latest album is a sophisticated and soulful affair. Best known for the track Breathe Me which so perfectly propelled the finale to Six Feet Under into television iconography, Some People… is Sia’s third proper solo album. Bridging soul and dreaded coffee klatch adult-contemporary, Some People… comes out somewhere to the indie-left of middle of the road.

In possession of an arresting voice that’s both gutsy, bluesy and yet capable of soft tenderness , she sings at a dramatic level that would make Rufus Wainwright question if he was putting enough effort in. Unfortunately the track sequencing could stand some adjustment as early on it places a number of similar ballads bordering on the soporific (Little Black Sandals and Lentil) and mellow M.O.R. (Day Too Soon and You Have Been Loved) - styles which become old very quickly and would benefit from redistribution. However, things pick up significantly with the welcome arrival of The Girl You Lost To Cocaine and its punchy energetic chorus. Academia’s flighty melody and guest vocals from Beck Hansen add a bit of quirkiness to the mix, as does the plucky Playground, but the latter half of Some People… benefits from being a changing musical landscape which also incorporates some great pop moments (Electric Bird), atmospheric pop (Beautiful Calm Driving), and some ballads Ms Beehive would be proud of (Soon We’ll Be Found and the soulful Death By Chocolate). But best of all is her cover of The Kinks I Go To Sleep (made famous by the Pretenders) which is nothing short of breath-taking. Some People… also comes with a hidden track of the single (and Youtube phenomenon), Buttons. Not an out and out success but certainly more hit than miss from a fascinating artist.

Wayne Davidson

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Beth Rowley –Little Dreamer

At the moment it seems you can’t take a step out of the front door without tripping on another ‘60s styled album from a British female soul singer. We’ve had Adele, Duffy, Amy, Sharleen, and now it’s Beth Rowley’s turn.

From the start of Little Dreamer it’s apparent this is classy operation and despite her young age Rowley steers a smooth and mature sounding ship. Her take on the standard Nobody’s Fault But Mine, complete with a grand arrangement and lavish backing vocals, is impressive. It's the same again with the soulful, if a tad unadventurous, Sweet Hours which sounds readymade to soundtrack Sunday brunch. Although she doesn’t manage to completely sell the emotional depth of the Winehouse-y love gone wrong of You Never Called Me Tonight, it’s still a set highlight. Also good, if a little unexciting, are her pop moments such as the sunshine swing-pop of So Sublime, unsurprisingly lifted as a single, the reggae-lite of the Bob Dylan cover I Shall Be Released, and Oh My Life which has a charming girl group swing to it.

But overall Little Dreamer is a reasonably pedestrian album, not bad, but far from great, and sadly gets dragged down by an M.O.R. dullness which manages to overshadow what is good. Despite her fine vocal performance the Willie Nelson track Angel Flying Too Close To the Ground, a duet with Duke Special, it is painfully dull, and the gospel of When The Rains Come sounds straight out of church (which may appeal to some listeners, but I’ll pass thanks). More of the same is Almost Persuaded and Beautiful Tomorrow which I’m happy to leave as memories.

Quality control can’t be argued in this collection of soul, jazz, country & blues, and Rowley (tour singer for Ronan Keating and Enrique Inglesias) has an undeniable set of strong bluesy pipes, however it’s a voice that lacks distinction and unfortunately so does Little Dreamer.

Wayne Davidson

Pop Levi Sings Never Never Love

Like The Last Shadow Puppets channelling of an authentic ‘60s sound, Pop Levi is also summoning the ghosts of pop charts past on Pop Levi Sings Never Never Love. “Recorded in my Hollywood kimono, just for you” (always nice to know) the sometimes Ladytron cohort melds a slightly insane mix of ‘70’s glam rock, electro, dub & and ‘80s pop with some contagious melodies and a super-crisp Chinn & Chappman-esque production (by Levi himself). As eccentric as Julian Cope or Sebastian Tellier, Levi's sound recalls, at least as a starting point, T-Rex, Supertramp, Devo, even a little Rupert Hine and David Essex; but his mini-masterpieces are too complex to confine to a short list of possible influences.

On the stomping opener Wannamama he’s Iggy Pop meets Marc Bolan, and although that track doesn’t feature one of his greatest melodies, he more than makes up for it across the album - so much so, that you may find yourself cursing him for locking annoyingly catchy hooks in your head including the stuttering title track and the painfully tender Semi-Babe; I even found myself giving it up to the initially irritating nursery chant of the dubby Call The Operator. His skill at reinventing past, often-neglected, musical styles is masterful. The bewilderingly odd Mai’s Space, although fantastic, may not seem much more innovative than what (Noosha) Fox did in 1975 - it’s a kind of reworking of Imagine Me, Imagine You. But heard in a contemporary context such an unfashionable caprice seems positively trailblazing. There’s an endless amount of highlights to discover like the bizarrely beautiful Love You Straight, the fiery glam of both Dita Dimoné and Fire on Your Feet. Also great is Calling Me Down, which is like Wings-era Paul McCartney, and the glam-tastic OTT drama of Fountain of Lies. Even better, this aural phantasmagoria is one that reveals itself more and more on repeated visits.

Apart from space left for “notes” and lyrics provided in both English and Japanese in the CD booklet he includes a small essay which includes shout outs to “runaway trains”, “mythica Ithaca”, “sweetlips”, “my Christmas present” and “Auntie Mum and the bunny rabbit” - which is all quite logical in the bonkers universe of the terrific Never Never Love. Bless you and your kimono, Pop Levi.

Wayne Davidson

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Carla Bruni – Carla Bruni (AKA Comme Si De Rien N'était)

Singer, songwriter, former model, fashionista, saucepot and First Lady to French President Nicolas Sarkozy; Carla Bruni seems to be doing it all, and if not, certainly doing most of it. This self-penned album (except for two covers and two songs co-written with Michel Houellebecq and Julien Clerc) is her third and was briefly a #1 seller in France (although not as succesful as her first 2) where it was released under the title of Comme Si De Rien N'était (trans: As If Nothing Had Happened). Musically Bruni sits somewhere between Françoise Hardy’s soft acoustic folk-pop, the emotive chanson of Jacques Brel and a Serge Gainsbourg-like balladry (and on a side note, it’s great to hear that she is giving all her royalties to charity).

Blessed with a voice like molasses, Bruni’s husky tones breathe sultry Gallic cabaret into everything she sings. Things start out strong with a continental sub-Beatles-styled waltz Ma Jeunesse (My Youth) but unfortunately she soon sets the switches to autopilot with the country-lite La Possibilité D'une Île (The Possibility of an Island) and threatens to send you to sleep with an abundance of M.O.R. chanson including Salut Marin (Hello Seaman),Déranger Les Pierres (To Disturb the Stones) and the 1950’s schtick of Je Suis Une Enfant (I'm a Child) which just drags. However, things pick up with L’Amoureuse (The Woman in Love – now we all know what Kiki Dee was on about…), the swinging jazz-lite of Tu Es Ma Came (You’re My Drug), the lively Le Temps Perdu (Wasted Time) – also, chiefly due to its simplicity, her version of the 50’s ballad You Belong To Me is an utter delight. Although much of this album languishes in E-Z territory, the slightly avant-garde closer Il Vecchio E Il Bambino (The Old Man and the Boy) hints at a more outré musical direction that is worth pursuing. This album sounds just like you might expect it to and that’s the main problem as it lacks any sort of uniqueness. A linking with a more adventurous arranger, Bertrand Burgalat for example, could be the missing piece to lift Bruni’s music out of the ordinaire.

Wayne Davidson

Monday, September 15, 2008

Katy Perry – One of the Boys

Fulfilling her role as this year’s rebellious It-Girl, Katy Perry’s persona is one of teen-contempt, wrapped up in 50’s cheesecake fashions with a line of mall pop/rock and a bi-curious twist to add some publicity paprika. It’s marketing genius which has successfully propelled her to the top of the charts but there seems to be little of substance under all this gloss.

The over-produced One Of The Boys is as bland as they come but like it or not you’d have to live in a cave to have not encountered the swaggering dullness of I Kissed a Girl on some level. This is hardly ground-breaking stuff, Jill Sobule did a much better song of the same name and theme back in 1995, and despite its potential to be a message of sexual emancipation (like Sobule’s song was) there’s an uneasy whiff of Ralph magazine bi-sploitation as she sings “Us girls are so magical, soft skin, red lips, so kissable… You’re my experimental game”; and IKAG seems to exist for titillation rather than any other reason. She’s doing it for the boys again on the title track where her sexual politics, possibly the result of her strict religious upbringing, are shown as conservative and old-fashioned as she relates the tale of her make over from ladette to lady; not for herself, not because she wants to, but so the boys will take notice of her.

After that shameless mess we get to UR So Gay where Perry sees no problem with using homophobia to emasculate her ex-boyfriend. In her world, heterosexuality equates to masculinity and heaven help any man who dares have emotions. Clearly, calling him gay is the worst possible insult she can think of. It’s ridiculously naïve to claim, as she has in interviews, that this attempt at humour won’t be offensive (to men, gay and straight alike).

It’s likely that Perry sees herself as rebellious and powerful, possibly funny, but instead just looks pathetically out of step with the times. “When I’m Rich You’ll Be My Bitch” is the name of her publishing company, which perfectly sums up the revenge-filled tone of this collection of immature teen-angst bad hair days.

Wayne Davidson

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Stereolab – Chemical Chords

A new Stereolab album is always cause for celebration around these parts and with Chemical Chords the band has made one of their most pop-friendly and accessible records to date. This is a tight motorik set, there’s no 18 minute sound scapes here (the longest track clocking in at a smidge over 5 minutes) and for the first time all the songs are born out of drum loops. For the uninitiated, Stereolab are headed Record Fair haunting types whose encyclopaedic appreciation of outré sounds result in the avant-garde / yé-yé / moog / retro-futuristic lounge melding best known as “Stereolab”.

Stand out tracks are many and include Three Women, easily one of their best pop songs, complete with 70’s swinging London brass and a dreamy girl-group vocal from Laetetia Sadier. There’s the stop-start chamber-pop and sensual chord changes of the title track; Pop Molecule takes the band into a fuzz-tastic 70’s rock orchestration and Cellulose Sunshine sounds like what one imagines baroque bubblegum music should, all sun-soaked with chiming harpsichords. There’s fun to be had with the jaunty Neon Beanbag and the rollicking Valley Hi!; Fractal Dream of a Thing (can I just say – titles!) has a butter smooth funk vibe that could slot comfortably into the Emperor Tomato Ketchup era of the band, and Self Portrait with Electric Brain positively swings. In addition, Sean O’Hagan’s striking brass and string arrangements are his most accomplished to date.

‘Lab leader Tim Gane has said that the mixing time was severely reduced (just a few days, rather than the several weeks he expected), and unfortunately it sometimes shows with a few songs sounding a bit rushed (a few end awkwardly, and suddenly). There’s more 4/4 song structure than in the past which is a little unadventurous considering their back catalogue, and there’s perhaps a rare error of judgement with the music hall sparkle of Daisy Click Clack. But having said, that this is still a great record, and better still, there’s at least 16 more tracks left over from the CC sessions that we can no doubt expect to surface on a bevy of collectible multi-format limited edition releases.

Wayne Davidson

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sharleen Spiteri – Melody

Getting back to the 60’s seems to be the flavour of the moment. With recent success stories such as Amy Winehouse, Duffy and The Last Shadow Puppets all turning their hand to a distinctly retro sound. Now it’s ex-Texas vocalist Sharleen Spiteri’s turn in a move that somehow seems more heart-felt than band wagon jumping. Spiteri has of course dabbled in this style before, but it’s with a tangible sense of emancipation that this solo album is allowing her free rein to create a more complete canvas of retro-fied pop music.

Spiteri’s Melody bounces out of the PYE Hi-Fi with two of its strongest tracks – the Sandie Shaw-alike opener It Was You, swiftly followed by the single-worthy All the Times I Cried, a melding of Dusty Springfield in ballad mode and The Shangri-Las Out In the Streets; it’s very good. You’ll love the tres Serge Gainsbourg styled title track (which is so stylised that Spiteri gives the late maestro a co-writing credit). Laying on the tambourines and violins helps to propel the bittersweet pop of Stop I Don’t Love You Anymore, the Motown-ery of Don’t Keep Me Waiting and Where Did It Go Wrong - all nicely poptastic in a melancholy, very personal-sounding way. As a side note, this isn’t surprising as Spiteri co-wrote all but one track, and word has it that Melody is primarily written about the break up of her 10-year relationship with magazine editor Ashley Heath.

At a short-ish 37 minute running-time it’s unfortunate that a few tracks are less than killer. I Wonder is only a few inches away from dreaded Celine Dion territory, You Let Me Down is dull and I’m Gonna Haunt You is like some of Nancy Sintara’s ill-advised forays into country music; but these quibbles aside, the lion’s share of Melody is a fine thing. You can almost see the end titles of the movie as the epic Daytripping takes us to our last stop, the delicate Francoise – a pop-lite chanson nod to Mademoiselle Hardy.

Wayne Davidson

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Four compilations

Future Pop
(EMI)
Quite a lot of good stuff here, all tailor-made for the 21st Century retro-futurist about town. It’s a mixed bag of left-field electro/dance music which is mostly the sort of sound which should please the modern alterna-pop fan. A double CD set featuring Hot Chip, Ladytron (the excellent Destroy Everything You Touch), Chromeo, the disco-fied Tracey Thorn, The Sugababes, Roisin Murphy, New Young Pony Club, Moby, Tiga etc… There’s also a special bunch of goodness from pop-tastic Sweden with the likes of Annie, Jenny Wilson, The Knife (a dance remix of Heartbeats) and Robyn’s finest moment (so far), “With Every Heartbeat”. I could do without Justin Timberlake and Kylie, but mostly Future Pop delivers a fine package, although there’s an inescapable irony that much of this “Future” pop music references a distinctly 80’s sound.

So Fresh: The #1 Hits
(Sony BMG)
Avril, Pink, Anthony Callea, Guy Sebastian, NSYNC, Backstreet Boys – ok, you know the territory, it’s radio-friendly all the way in this ultra-commercial 2 CD set. But having said that, listening through this bunch it does make me wonder how some of these were hits in the first place – the bizarre Lonely by Akon, for example. The transient nature of fashion in pop is never far from the surface with inclusions from Aqua (Doctor Jones) and The Pussycat Dolls who already sound a bit like last week’s milkshake. The rare brilliance stands out a mile with Britney Spear’s pop blast of Toxic and the dated, but still ravishing Tatu belting out the dramedy of All the Things She Said. So Fresh, is So Not my bag, but if you’re hosting a tween birthday party, this could be the ideal soundtrack.

Eurovision Song Contest Belgrade 2008
(CMC/ EMI)
We got a 3 night Euro-spectacular from Belgrade this year which had the expected mix of ballads, ritz, titz and oddballs that fans have come to expect (read that – “demand”) from the Eurovision Song Contest (which I prefer to think of as our Grand Final). There were less of the novelty entries this year although Estonia and Spain had a good crack at it, along with Ireland’s jaw-droppingly awful MC Turkey puppet thing – answers on a postcard… Still, you get a bunch of top pop from the Ukraine, Iceland (they just never let us down) and the right-side-of-quirky French entrant by cult pop star Sebastien Tellier. There’s also a ripper (Pokuŝaj) from Bosnia & Herzegovina which sounds like an amateur dramatic society doing a musical about Britpop (check it out and tell me I’m wrong). As for the winner? Russia – nil points I’m afraid.

Jools Holland – Best of Friends
(Rhino / Warner)
This is a rather lavish package for fairly unexciting content. Best of Friends comes with a CD and DVD to showcase a collection of standards (I Put A Spell On You, Georgia On My Mind etc…) featuring a roster of international stars and overseen by UK jazz maestro Jools Holland. The style is a primarily rock/soul (think “The Commitments”) and capably performed but mostly lacks much spark. Vocal contributions come from Sting, Mica Paris, Bono, Norah Jones, Shane McGowan and Tom Jones, to name a few. The best tracks are Chrissie Hynde’s Out of This World and Suggs whimsical Oranges and Lemons Again, but mostly this album is just polished and professional and dullsville. I’d love to tell you about the DVD but it wouldn’t play in any player I put it in, however it lists a behind the scenes documentary, interview and a few videos as included.

Wayne Davidson

Monday, June 09, 2008

Ladytron – Velocifero

Once tagged with the kiss-of-death “Electroclash” label, Ladytron have proved survivors outliving any expectations of ephemeral success and also creating their own unique pop galaxy along the way. 2005’s Witching Hour was a stylistic turning point for the band that took their music into new more expansive realms – a style made from 360 degree sound, ghostly vocals, motorik beats, and 80’s synthesizers coupled with their arresting visual presence. Pleasingly on Velocifero the ‘Trons don’t seem to be taking a big stylistic leap but are content to refine and develop their art with another superb collection of electro pop.

We’re dropped straight into a familiar world of big beats, Numan-esque synthesizers and Mira Aroya’s Bulgarian school mistress vocals on Black Cat before the band commences their first assault on the gothic dance floors with the swaggering single, Ghosts. Sounding like a female version of Placebo going glam this is one of many tracks tailor-made for the alterna-disco in their particular slanted style such as They Gave You A Heart, They Gave You A Name and Tomorrow which sounds a little like Spooky-era Lush. Airborne and eerie vocals abound on Season of Illusions and on the delirious The Lovers with its crystalline melody coming out of the layers of dense electro pop sensurround. A strong sense of movement is apparent throughout, aided by locomotive rhythms as on the Giorgio Moroder-ish Deep Blue and the chugging alterna-rock of Burning Up.

A change of pace comes with the tender Kletva, sounding like a piece of experimental Czechoslovakian pop from the 60’s; other surprises include the burst-out chorus of I’m Not Scared, and there’s Predict The Day which starts with little more than drums, vocals and whistling and builds into a robust pop song, Velocifero wraps up with Versus, an epic but gentle pop masterpiece uncharacteristically including male vocals and in an expansive style worthy of Ennio Morricone. It’s a blissful end to this exciting and heady pop trip.

Wayne Davidson