Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Belle & Sebastian If You're Feeling Sinister


Belle & Sebastian If You're Feeling Sinister

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Belle & Sebastian's second record, If You're Feeling Sinister, is, for all intents and purposes, really their first, since their debut in 1996 was not heard outside of privileged inner circles. And If You're Feeling Sinister really did have quite a bit of an impact upon its release in 1996, largely because during the first half of the '90s the whimsy and preciousness that had been an integral part of alternative music was suppressed by grunge. Whimsy and preciousness are an integral part of If You're Feeling Sinister, along with clever wit and gentle, intricate arrangements -- a wonderful blend of the Smiths and Simon & Garfunkel, to be reductive. Even if it's firmly within the college, bed-sit tradition, and is unabashedly retrogressive, that gives Sinister a special, timeless character that's enhanced by Stuart Murdoch's wonderful, lively songwriting. Blessed with an impish sense of humor, a sly turn of phrase, and an alluringly fey voice, he gives this record a real sense of backbone, in that its humor is far more biting than the music appears and the music is far more substantial that it initially seems. Sinister plays like a great forgotten album, couched in '80s indie, '90s attitude, and '60s folk-pop. It's beautifully out of time, and even if other Belle & Sebastian albums sound like it, this is where they achieved a sense of grace.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Beth Orton ‎Central Reservation


Beth OrtonCentral Reservation

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On her stunning sophomore album, Central Reservation, Beth Orton slips free of the electronic textures that colored her acclaimed 1996 debut, Trailer Park, stripping her music down to its raw essentials to produce a work of stark simplicity and rare poignancy. With the exception of a pair of Ben Watt-produced tracks ("Stars All Seem to Weep" and a remix of the title cut), Central Reservation rejects synthetic sounds and beats altogether in favor of an organic atmosphere somewhere between folk, jazz, and the blues; the focal point is instead Orton's evocatively soulful voice, which invests songs like "Sweetest Decline" and "Feel to Believe" with remarkable warmth and honesty. It's a risky move creatively as well as commercially -- after all, the club culture was the first to champion Orton's talents -- but it pays off handsomely; for all its brilliance, elements of Trailer Park already feel dated, but the new material possesses a timelessness that recalls the best of Nick Drake or Sandy Denny, with a haunting beauty to match. And while much has been made of the melancholy that pervades her music, ultimately Central Reservation is first and foremost a record about hope and survival; its emotional centerpiece, the seven-minute "Pass in Time" (a spine-tingling duet with legendary folk-jazz mystic Terry Callier), grapples with the death of Orton's mother, but its underlying message of healing and perseverance is powerfully life-affirming -- her music hasn't merely discovered the light at the end of the tunnel, it's now bathing in it.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Enigma ‎MCMXC a.D. "The Limited Edition"



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Michael Crétu's attempt at fusing everything from easy listening sex music and hip-hop rhythms to centuries-old Gregorian chants couldn't have been more designed to tweak the nose of high art, a joyously crass stab straight at a mainstream, do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars. The result is something that shouldn't exist, but in its own way results in as much of a cultural scramble and explosion as anything Public Enemy were doing around the same time, crossing over the Euro-disco and new age spheres with style. Credit Crétu for an open ear for whatever works, which is precisely why "Sadeness," the first part of a longer track called "Principles of Lust," turned into a fluke worldwide hit. Snippets of monks invoking the Almighty effortlessly glide in and out of a polite but still strong breakbeat, shimmering, atmospheric synth and flute lines and a Frenchwoman whispering in a way that sounds distinctly more carnal than spiritual (as her gasps for breath elsewhere make clear). Guitar and male vocals add to the album version's try-anything-that-works approach, as do attempts at shuffling jazz beats and horns. If nothing quite equals that prime moment elsewhere on the album, MCMXC A.D. still trips out on the possibilities as it can, right from the opening "Voice of Enigma," inviting all listeners to sit back, relax, and take a gentle trip. Crétu certainly isn't trying to hide anything -- "Callas Went Away" goes right ahead and adds a sample of Maria Callas herself to the chirping birds and soft beats, while elsewhere the flutes, beats, monks, and French voices merrily go about their glossy business. About the only thing missing is the kitchen sink, making the entire album the "MacArthur Park" of its day.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Frank Black ‎Teenager Of The Year


Frank BlackTeenager Of The Year

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A sprawling double album, Frank Black's Teenager of the Year builds on the clever, carefully crafted pop he forged on his solo debut and moves even farther away from the Pixies' sound. It feels like the album Black wanted to make since Bossanova: "Whatever Happened to Pong?" and "Thalassocracy" are a one-two blast of energetic fun, but the tight songwriting and detailed arrangements on the strummy "Headache" and gentle, piano-driven "Sir Rockaby" are more interesting. Despite its 22-song length, most of Teenager of the Year's tracks are keepers; the first nine rank among Black's catchiest songs with or without the Pixies. "I Want to Live on an Abstract Plain" and "The Vanishing Spies" mix sweet straightforward melodies with spacy keyboards, and Black delivers a creative love song in "Speedy Marie"; the first letter of each line in the song's second half spells out his girlfriend's name. The driving, anthemic "Freedom Rock" is one of the album's more ambitious tracks, along with the catchy, educational "Ole Mulholland," a musical history lesson about William Mulholland, the developer and planner of Los Angeles' municipal water system. Teenager's beginning is so consistent, it's not surprising that its second half isn't quite as essential, but it's still interesting. The spacy, ska-tinged "Fiddle Riddle," the cryptic "Superabound," and the sprightly final track "Pie in the Sky" -- which sounds strangely like a punk version of Gary U.S. Bonds' hit "A Quarter to Three" -- all add to the album's individuality. Even less-developed songs like "Fazer Eyes" and "The Hostest with the Mostest" are still worthwhile. Though his later albums took a sparer, simpler approach, Teenager of the Year's ambition and quirkiness begin Black's evolution into a cult artist who makes the music he wants to, regardless of whether or not it's fashionable.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Lloyd Cole Don't Get Weird On Me Babe



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Lloyd Cole's second solo album, 1991's Don't Get Weird on Me, Babe, was about a half-decade ahead of its time. If it had come out in 1996, after Richard Davies' Cardinal project, the High Llamas' Gideon Gaye, and the new belief in indie circles that Pet Sounds and Burt Bacharach were musical icons worthy of veneration, this would have slotted right in. In the year bracketed by My Bloody Valentine's Loveless and Nirvana's Nevermind, Don't Get Weird on Me, Babe (title courtesy of Raymond Carver) was considered a self-indulgent oddity. In retrospect, however, it's clearly one of Lloyd Cole's finest works. The album is divided into two distinct parts. One (the first half in the U.S., the second half everywhere else) is more of Cole's trademark literate, jangly guitar pop, featuring the sterling "Tell Your Sister" and the uncharacteristically rocking "She's a Girl and I'm a Man," the closest Cole ever came to an American hit single. This side features a core band of Fred Maher (who co-produced) on drums, Matthew Sweet on bass, and Robert Quine on guitar. That trio also appears on the other half of the album, but that set of six songs is dominated by a full orchestra arranged and conducted by Paul Buckmaster. Buckmaster's dramatic orchestrations add an entirely new dimension to the darker-edged songs without drowning them in Mantovani-style glop. In fact, the arrangements are rather low-key, especially on the haunting, hushed "Margo's Waltz," a gorgeous song with a jazzy bass part by Leland Sklar, subtle vibes, breathy female backing vocals, and almost subliminal brushed drums. Strongly reminiscent of Bacharach's most restrained '60s work -- especially during ex-Commotion Blair Cowan's lovely Hammond B3 solos -- "Margo's Waltz" is among the three or four best songs Cole has ever written. However, it's only one of many highlights on this exceptional, underrated album

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Ride Nowhere (20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)



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Nowhere seems to hold consensus as the second-best record of the shoegaze era, and with very good reason. All of the common words, phrases, and adjectives commonly used with the short-lived subgenre fit properly here, and they're all positive, every one of them. Whir, whoosh, haze, swirl, ad nauseum -- this record holds all of these elements at their most exciting and mastered. But in the end, great pop records necessitate quality songs, which Nowhere delivers throughout. Undeniably, it's Ride's zenith -- dense, tight, hypnotic. "Seagull" serves as a dynamic opener; after a couple seconds of light feedback, bassist Steve Queralt kicks in with a rubbery, elliptical line (reminiscent of a certain Beatles song), which is soon followed by Andy Bell and Mark Gardener's guitar twists and Loz Colbert's alternately gentle and punishing drumming. After the upbeat "Kaleidoscope," the record falls into a tempo lull that initially seems impenetrable and meandering. However, patience reveals a five-song suite of sorts, full of lovely instrumental passages that are punctuated with violent jabs of manic guitars. The endlessly escalating "Polar Bear" is a high point, featuring expertly placed tom rolls from Colbert. The tempo picks up for the closing "Vapour Trail," a wistful pop song with chiming background guitars galore and mournful strings to close it out. The U.S. version was bolstered significantly with the remainder of the Fall EP ("Dreams Burn Down" having reappeared earlier in the record). "Taste" is one of their finest pure pop numbers; the moody/driving "Here and Now" rates well, and the five-minute "Nowhere" is a nasty distorto-freakout. [Nowhere was remastered and reissued by Ignition U.K. in 2001. Added to the 11 tracks featured on Sire's U.S. edition are the four selections from the equally wondrous Today Forever.]

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

R.E.M. ‎New Adventures In Hi-Fi



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Recorded during and immediately following R.E.M.'s disaster-prone Monster tour, New Adventures in Hi-Fi feels like it was recorded on the road. Not only are all of Michael Stipe's lyrics on the album about moving or travel, the sound is ragged and varied, pieced together from tapes recorded at shows, soundtracks, and studios, giving it a loose, careening charm. New Adventures has the same spirit of much of R.E.M.'s IRS records, but don't take the title of New Adventures in Hi-Fi lightly -- R.E.M. tries different textures and new studio tricks. "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us" opens the album with a rolling, vaguely hip-hop drum beat and slowly adds on jazzily dissonant piano. "E-Bow the Letter" starts out as an updated version of "Country Feedback," then it turns in on itself with layers of moaning guitar effects and Patti Smith's haunting backing vocals. Clocking in at seven minutes, "Leave" is the longest track R.E.M. has yet recorded and it's one of their strangest and best -- an affecting minor-key dirge with a howling, siren-like feedback loop that runs throughout the entire song. Elsewhere, R.E.M. tread standard territory: "Electrolite" is a lovely piano-based ballad, "Departure" rocks like a Document outtake, the chiming opening riff of "Bittersweet Me" sounds like it was written in 1985, "New Test Leper" is gently winding folk-rock, and "The Wake-Up Bomb" and "Undertow" rock like the Monster outtakes they are. New Adventures in Hi-Fi may run a little too long -- it clocks in at 62 minutes, by far the longest album R.E.M. has ever released -- yet in its multifaceted sprawl, they wound up with one of their best records of the '90s.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

John Peel ‎FabricLive. 07


John PeelFabricLive. 07

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DJ legend John Peel's regular appearances at London's Fabric nightclub have never been any more predictable than the last 35 years of his BBC radio show. On air or in person, Peel has pursued a musical eclecticism that defies boundaries even as it, so inadvertently, has defined the "underground" for great swathes of his audience. It is no surprise whatsoever, then, to discover that his contribution to the FabricLive series of mix CDs is essentially a template for everything that his radio show offers. For 73 minutes, FabricLive.07 takes listeners on a journey through punk, reggae, soul, hip-hop, blues, garage -- pretty much any genre you can name, in fact -- with diversions via the odd musical hybrids that Peel alone seems able to sniff out and which his patronage alone lifts out of the novelty bracket: the Kingswoods' country-billy version of the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant" and the Bad Livers' bluegrass "Lust for Life" both subdue their innate absurdity with gravity-defying authenticity. Retaining another long-cherished Peel trademark, there are few tricks of the DJ trade on board -- beyond slapping some brutal echo onto the end of the Fall's "Mr Pharmacist" and the occasional inserted snatches of soccer commentary, he has made no attempt at remixing, preferring to allow the individual songs' own juxtapositions to speak for themselves. So, a Peel session cut of Culture's "Lion Rock" leads into the Northern soul classic "Tom the Peeper," which slips in turn into Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," and suddenly it's hard to imagine hearing them in any other way. With the music so firmly stamped with Peel's personality, longtime listeners could probably identify this collection's compiler without even glancing at the credits. Just in case there's any confusion, though, a handful of intrusions do confirm Peel's presence at the controls: the aforementioned soccer commentaries, of course; the roar of the Kop Choir, fellow supporters of his hometown Liverpool F.C club, bellowing out "You'll Never Walk Alone"; and, wrapping up the CD, the effervescent dynamism of the Undertones' "Teenage Kicks," a song that Peel himself has declared among the greatest ever made. One does wonder how he was able to decide, though.
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