Friday, 19 August 2011

30. Pure X - Pleasure

Remember indie music? Not the shiny britpop bullshit of 'Alright guvnor how's yer tin pan alley' bollocks, but the stuff from before, the proper indie, when 'indie' meant 'independent', not a Paul Weller haircut and a new pair of converse. When a cover of the NME or Melody Maker didn't send you to the top of the charts but guaranteed seventeen paying punters when you played The Falcon. Yes, ladies and gentleman, I'm talking about The Good Old Days, when guitars drowned out vocals and it was for the best because the singer couldn't really sing anyway. And who wants a singer who can sing? That way leads to Mick Hucknall, Celine Dion and eventually Leona Lewis (not to mention Fleet bastard can we fit another harmony in here Foxes). I'm talking about music that was recorded for seventy five quid in the back of a laundrette, and sounded like it, but simultaneously filled your pathetic, moping teenage heart until it almost burst. Dirty, scruffy, romantic music that didn't ever think about its midweek chart position because that could never happen to an indie band. In fact, it so obviously couldn't happen, indie music had its own chart. I remember getting a lift off my cousin when I was sixteen, and he told me his mate was in a band and their ep had gone into the indie charts at number seven. That to me then, and if I'm honest, even now a little bit, seemed the most extraordinary thing that could ever happen to a man. Fuck walking on the moon, if I was ever in a band that debuted at number seven in the indie charts my life would surely be complete for ever.

I mean this from the bottom of my massively impressed sixteen year old heart - Pure X sound like they would debut at number seven in the indie charts. Scruffy, fuzzy, sweet and sometimes angry guitars roam, vocals are buried in there somewhere, wrapped in reverb, the words hidden amongst the noise, drums lazily thump, just about in time, and a rumbling bass spills out of a distorting amp. To be specific they sound like a cross between The Jesus and Mary Chain and Mazzy Star, the perfect down-at-heel indie guitar band then. They don't do anything as uncouth as writing tunes as such, they're too good/cool for that, leave that to the chart wannabes, but clearly a lot of care has gone into the recording of the album. The guitaring particularly is wonderful - at times dopey and docile and then a sudden switch, and it feels like someone is poking your brain with a knitting needle. If you want an instant pop hit you will have to look elsewhere, but if you want an album that a 1992 Melody Maker review would probably call: dreamy and dozily hypnotic - it will stone you to your soul - this is the album for you.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

29. Fionn Regan - 100 Acres Of Sycamore

The mop-topped Irish vagabond Fionn Regan is back and there is quite a tale to be told in the history behind this album. Regan's debut, The End of History, came out on Bella Union in 2006, was critically heralded all over the place and nominated for a Mercury. He then signed to Lost Highway Records in America and recorded an album with Ethan Johns, famous for producing Ryan Adams amongst other people, but that album was rejected by the label. Regan flew back to Ireland and quickly recorded the rockier, electric-Dylanesque Shadow Of An Empire, an album which sounded the polar opposite of his delicate debut. This album whilst again critically well received, didn't seem to connect with his fans, and although I don't have the sales figures in front of me, I suspect it didn't perform half as well as his debut. Which, only sixteen months later, brings us to his third album, 100 Acres of Sycamore, and a return to the intimate sound and fingerpicked acoustic guitars of his first album. Now there are two ways of looking at this: the cynical view is that Regan realised his last album turned a lot of fans off so he intentionally returned to the sounds that made his debut popular, the more positive take is that he is a man who records what he wants when he wants, and this album reflects where he is at the moment. And regardless of all that, is it actually any good? And that's the tricky thing - it is, but it also manages to disappoint.

To get the criticism out of the way first - the album is very similarly paced throughout. Slow, acoustic song follows slow acoustic song, the tone varies very little. It doesn't have the playfulness of his debut, nor the energy or attitude of Shadow. And whilst on both previous albums there were stand out songs, songs that immediately lodged themselves in the songbank of your brain, nothing here leaps out, knocks you to the ground and shoves its tongue down your throat. Which is a bad thing, obviously.

But it's still an intriguing listen, and more often than not it is the lyrics which pull you in. Regan's always been a man in love with words and where many songwriters seem more interested in the music and throw any rhyming couplets on top of their chords (I'm looking at you Gallagher, both of you), Regan has always taken delight in the words. The album opens with the sinister lines:

We'll go knuckle to knuckle,
and buckle against buckle,
your nostrils will flair,
as you push out the air,
rise up, brother, rise up,
rise up from the trappings of flesh and the holdings of skin,
We'll steer car towards the reservoir,
and poison our senses as nightfall commences...

So where the music might occasionally be your usual finger-picked, string-drenched, songwriter stuff, you can usually guarantee that Regan will be dropping an interesting tale in there, giving something for your ears and brain to lose themselves in, but, on initial listens at least, the tunes themselves aren't ones which will lodge in your head. But I will keep listening to see if he ever quite fulfills the promise suggested on his debut album, and even when he's not quite getting there he's still more interesting than most other singer songwriters.

And to finish, just for fun, please let me let me quote from the Guardian review of the album:

'Regan's guitar a moonlit stream weaving through a forest of glimmering piano and velvety strings.'

They mean he fingerpicks his guitar over a piano and string backing...

Monday, 15 August 2011

28. Drugstore - Anatomy

In this age of full disclosure I will be upfront. A few months ago Isabel Monteiro (Drugstore singer, songwriter and chief) set up a Pledge account to help fund the recording of a new album and I pledged a tiny, tiny bit of cash because I have a long history of fandom with this band. I can't claim credit for this good taste, it comes from my girlfriend. When we first got together she was regularly playing Drugstore's first album and we have followed them ever since, seeing them at various venues from York to London. Now brace yourself for a sad story. At a Christmas gig at The Garage (I think), in 2002 (maybe), in London (pretty sure about that), the band were running a raffle and my girlfriend, let's call her Anne, bought a few tickets. After a fantastic gig Ms. Monteiro announced the winners and if she called out your number you had to go up to the stage to collect your prize. I noticed Anne looking panicky as one number was repeatedly read out. I grabbed the ticket off her to see that it was her number, but it was too late, Isabel had moved on to a new number. Anne was desperate to win the prize but she'd been too shy to walk up to the stage to claim it. Why didn't she hand the ticket to me?! I know! At a later gig I managed to snaffle a handwritten set list to try and make up for it. We still have the set list, and one day will get it framed and up on the wall. All this is a long way of saying I bring baggage to this review and was very sad when the band disappeared after their 2001 album Songs For The Jet Set. That was ten years ago, and there is quite a story contained within those ten, seemingly lost years, which you can read about here.

To the album. It's always an exciting yet scary moment when a much loved artist returns - what if it's shit? What if it had been better if they hadn't bothered? There are plenty of reunions which reek of cashing in and which leave nobody convinced. Well, you can't accuse Drugstore of doing this for the cash, they've had to raise the money just to record, and thankfully, the music is beautiful. Call it alt. country or hushed, confessional pop, call it whatever you want, it's a brilliant piece of work. You may think that a band who have been away for a decade would want to kick the door in on their return, but Drugstore have gone the other way. This album creeps in and keeps creeping pretty much until the last song. This is battered, bruised, broken and then rebuilt and defiant Drugstore. And whilst the album is wonderfully recorded and produced you can thankfully still hear the intimacy of the early scruffy demos Isabel began to post online a couple of years ago, when she first began to toy with the idea of some sort of return. So it may be quiet, and at times defeated, but that it exists at all is a testimony to the strength of human spirit, the creative spirit. 'Life can break your heart, but it can make you great' she sings on Falling Rocks and I think that just about sums up the story behind this wonderful album.

Oh, and if they need to, the band should set up a Pledge account so the label can afford to nominate Anatomy for a Mercury next year (I think it's quite expensive to nominate, but I could have invented that). That would be the perfect end to this story.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

27. The Horrors - Skying

At least when Viva Brother swagger along, gurning away in their slightly slow, inane, manner you get to your swing arm, tighten your fist. Whereas what is there to say about The Horrors' album? By the fourth, or maybe it's the fifth song, it's hard to keep track, you find yourself wondering if ITV3 are showing any Taggart (Can't believe they axed Taggart).

There's a lot of talk about how The Horrors sound like other bands with this release, mainly Simple Minds and other eighties culprits, but that's not the problem, loads of bands steal from/sound like other acts. But it is a problem that they don't sound like themselves. When Suede referenced Bowie they sounded like a band acknowledging a Bowie fascination, when Teenage Fanclub jangled and swooned like Big Star, they sounded like the perfectly formed sunkissed Scottish pop band they were in their hearts. With The Horrors it's like they've collected a bunch of sounds and kicked them into their songs, which are, sadly, as unremarkable as the sounds they've plundered. Not even disappointing, just, you know... Oooooh look, Taggart is on!

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

26. Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle

Bill Callahan sounds like a man who's seen things. A dead horse on a highway. A trailer park fire in Wyoming. A man shot in the leg over a woman. You know, that sort of thing. He also sounds like the kind of man who would get dumped by a woman, not say a word to anyone, and then five years later write an album about it. A real man, if you like. He does, occasionally, give off the air of being a serial killer, but we'll let that go because of the voice. I knew that a lot of his earlier records as Smog were lo-fi and self recorded, so I presumed that he would be a wobbly, half-singer like Mark Linkous or Stephen Malkmus (both of who are great singers in their own way). I assumed he was a shy indie kid, hiding his voice behind scruffy attitude. So when the beautiful, restrained, Jim Cain crept out of the speakers and his voice hit, singing the lines: I started off in search of ordinary things, How much of a tree bends in the wind, it fairly knocked me sideways. Here was this deep, resonant voice, singing a gorgeously produced, stately song. It didn't sound like the king of lo-fi at all, it wasn't what I expected, which is a good thing. It's good to be surprised by music, it keeps you on your toes, stops you making stupid presumptions drawn from articles read in Melody Maker sixteen years ago. God I miss Melody Maker...

What sets Callahan apart from many singer-songwriters is his restraint. He writes wonderfully direct songs, but even at the most intimate moments you feel he is keeping the listener at bay a little. There is a real mystery within these songs, a distance in the delivery. And without wanting to sound like an old bastard, it makes a refreshing change in these days, when we share almost everything with anyone, it sets him apart. You get the feeling he has to write and record these songs, but does he actually want to? I'm not so sure.

I have to mention the production. How can a man who has sold as few records as Bill Callahan record such an expensive sounding album? Particularly in an age where nobody pays for music. Who paid to record this album? Well, I'm grateful that they did. And hope they keep coughing up the cash so we get more music like this.