Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Belle & Sebastian Dear Catastrophe Waitress


Belle & Sebastian Dear Catastrophe Waitress

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After the near-disaster of forced democracy on Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant and the stultifying holding pattern of the Storytelling soundtrack, where Todd Solondz brought out their worst tendencies, it seemed that Belle & Sebastian were disappearing into their own preciousness, but then something unexpected happened: they returned to form with 2003's Dear Catastrophe Waitress. This was unexpected not just because their last efforts suggested that B&S no longer could produce a consistently engaging work, but because their savior came in the guise of Trevor Horn, the man who successfully helped Yes turn new wave, the man best known for his synth-heavy productions of ABC and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the man who was last heard producing everybody's favorite Russian teen lesbian duo, Tatu. That diverse resumé suggests that Horn knows how to play to a band's strengths, and he certainly helps Belle & Sebastian regain their focus and vision, turning Dear Catastrophe Waitress into one of the group's best albums. One of the reasons that album works so well is that the notion that the band has no leader has been discarded, with Stuart Murdoch thankfully serving as the lead singer and songwriter throughout the record. Murdoch's songs are firmly within the patented Belle & Sebastian style, and while it may be true that he's not stretching himself much as a writer, that doesn't matter because he sounds assured and confident, turning out a set of songs that are finely crafted and tuneful. It's among his catchiest work, if not quite his cleverest, since the words occasionally offer an overdose of whimsy that leads to queasiness. And that's where Horn comes in -- by keeping the focus on the tunes and subtly varying the production, he's made Dear Catastrophe Waitress the richest musical offering yet from Belle & Sebastian. If it doesn't quite have the timeless feel of If You're Feeling Sinister, so be it, since this is their first record since that defining album to offer a similarly rich listen, and that's quite a comeback for a band that only an album ago seemed to peak too early.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Fatboy Silm You've Come A Long Way, Baby 10th Anniversary Edition



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Fatboy Slim's debut album, Better Living Through Chemistry, was one of the surprises of the big beat revolution of 1996 -- an eclectic blowout, all tracked to thunderous loops and masterminded by Norman Cook, a former member of the British pop band the Housemartins. It might not have been as startlingly fresh as the Chemical Brothers, but the hard-hitting beats and catchiness, not to mention consistency, of Better Living was a shock, and it raised expectations for Fatboy Slim's second album, You've Come a Long Way, Baby. And that record itself was something of a surprise, since it not only exceeded the expectations set by the debut, but came damn close to being the definitive big beat album, rivaling the Chemicals' second record, Dig Your Own Hole. The difference is, Cook is a record geek with extensive knowledge and eclectic tastes. His juxtapositions -- the album swings from hip-hop to reggae to jangle pop, and then all combines into one sound -- are wildly original, even if the music itself doesn't break through the confines of big beat. Then again, when a record is this forceful and catchy, it doesn't need to break new stylistic ground -- the pleasure is in hearing a master work. And there's no question that Cook is a master of sorts -- You've Come a Long Way, Baby is a seamless record, filled with great imagination, unexpected twists and turns, huge hooks, and great beats. It's the kind of record that gives big beat a good name.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Propellerheads Decksandrumsandrockandroll Japan



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Really, the title says it all -- Decksanddrumsandrockandroll is about as close to rock & roll as big-beat techno is going to get. Taking their cue from the Chemical Brothers, the Bath-based duo Propellerheads offer a set of pummeling, ultra-loud beats that may dabble in funk, house, hip-hop, soul, and rap, but which all come out sounding as aggressive as rock. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- at its best, big beat is as invigorating as any other music -- but Propellerheads don't have the finesse, innovation, or style of the Chemical Brothers, the leading proponents of big beat. When they shake the beat up, whether on the wah-wah-drenched "Velvet Pants" or the pair of John Barry/James Bond tributes (a reworking of their cover of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" and "History Repeating"), it sounds like a tactical move, since they know they can't spend the entire album on thundering dance cuts like "Bang On!" and "Take California." That said, Decksanddrumsandrockandroll remains a strong big beat album, even if it ultimately doesn't reveal anything new, because the duo knows how to craft a hard-hitting, infectious rhythm track. And while that doesn't make them the next Chemical Brothers, it does make them the best in this style since the Chemicals.

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Grant Lee Buffalo Mighty Joe Moon


Grant Lee Buffalo Mighty Joe Moon

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Grant Lee Phillips, as he would later be known as a solo artist, is primarily the sole songwriter for his group Grant Lee Buffalo as well. But unlike more subtle releases later in his career, there is a fire burning in him on this album, galvanizing in songs like the opening anthem Lone Star Song. Released in 1994, when grunge had a fairly good hold on what was king on the airwaves, comes an album, that takes that raw emotion and embraces it with a vocalist who can be just as abrasive as any hard rock artist and then tone it down, into an almost singer/songwriter tone that can evoke that beauty reminiscent of such artists as Gordon Lightfoot or even James Taylor. What makes this album an all time classic and yet keeps it safely under the radar, is the fact that it doesn't sound like anything else. There is really no one quite to compare it to. Not that Phillip's songwriting doesn't draw from many pools of inspiration, but when he does, he takes it and makes it own. Like the 'master's apprentice' analogy, Phillip's music is HIS music, and he never comes close to becoming a mere clone of his inspirations. Distorted guitars, mixed with mandolins, banjos, blaring harmonicas and Phillips ever commanding voice is held steady by a very subtle yet strong rhythm section. Lyrically he blazes through politics, love, the human spirit, and ends the album with a very chilling take on his own version of the old hymn Rock of Ages. There is no need to pick this album apart, song by song. Every song on here somehow perfectly meshes with its predecessor, yet holds a distinct vibe, always slightly different. From glaring electric guitars to hushed acoutics, each song on here has something to say, musically and lyrically, conveyed in such a manner that it can cut right to the heart of the listener, especially with tracks such as Happiness. Phillips has a way of getting his message across in a way that draws in his listeners, as he though he is not just singing to them, but for them, making many of these songs a very personal listen. This album is one of those very few that you don't find the need to skip a track. It works on so many levels and rises above much of what was being released in 1994 and even in 2019. If there was this kind of ingenuity, this kind of depth, put into the commercial market, music would be a lot healthier for it. To think that this was released on Geffen records now amazes me, because today, this album would probably end up on a lower tier independent label. They went on to record two more albums after this one, both good, but never reaching the heights acheived Mighty Joe Moon.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Screaming Trees Sweet Oblivion


Screaming Trees Sweet Oblivion

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The Screaming Trees one-upped their major-label debut, Uncle Anesthesia, with this solid, vastly underrated effort. Sweet Oblivion's lead single, the jumpy hard rocker "Nearly Lost You," proved itself a highlight on the hugely successful, Seattle-themed Singles soundtrack. But even though the Screaming Trees stacked up quite well against their more famous peers in that particular showcase, the exposure didn't make them stars. Perhaps it was because Sweet Oblivion had been released several months before Singles, and the band thus couldn't build a sense of anticipation for a new album release, the way Alice in Chains and Smashing Pumpkins did for Dirt and Siamese Dream, respectively; nor could they capitalize on the extra publicity that goes along with new releases. For whatever reason, Singles didn't push sales of Sweet Oblivion, as the latter only scraped the lower reaches of the Billboard charts. And that's a shame, because the record is quite good -- the best songs here are easily among the best in their catalog, and the songwriting was their most consistent yet. "Nearly Lost You" is a standout, of course, but "Dollar Bill," "Shadow of the Season," and "Butterfly" are nearly as impressive. Mark Lanegan's raspy voice conveys a weary wistfulness that adds an unexpected dimension to the group's otherwise macho garage-psych grunge. The Trees no longer sound all that punkish, trading in some of their early, noisy fury for a more '70s-indebted hard rock sound, but it's done with a graceful power that proves they were at least the equal of their more famous fellow scenesters. Unfortunately, the four-year hiatus between Sweet Oblivion and its follow-up, Dust, ensured that the band would be forever relegated to cult status.

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Moose High Ball Me!



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What's more surprising? That London's Moose have finally secured a U.S. release for their fourth LP, High Ball Me!, after the first three were undeserved imports? (They were dropped by a hasty Virgin in 1992 after only one release, a cobbled-together, seven-song EP of their earliest, too-formative singles called Sonny and Sam, still the poorest intro to the group.) Or that Moose are still so damn sparkling after a decade, making them four-out-of-four terrific with wonderfully inspired LPs? Or that they're even still around at all, considering the obscurity they've suffered (and the five-year span since their last LP)? Again, nearly all their contemporaries from the 1989-1993 Camden dream pop scene have withered on the vine. But Moose, the group least reliant on that scene for its inspirations and sound (despite a longstanding friendship with Cocteau Twins, who brought Moose over as a support band on their final U.S. tour), have continued to prosper, at least musically. And what a thing of pacific beauty they remain! For High Ball Me! is another proud accomplishment from a group that's always made beguiling, sunny warm, expertly textured, well-conceived, and well-played LPs (think bossa nova ambience mixed with early Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb pop gems, a little like Ivy), while covering Wire and Harry Nilsson's "Everybody's Talking." Each new album is like a group of songs to ice-skate to, so cool and menthol, so sweet and gliding, and High Ball Me! is yet another. One just falls for still-vintage Moose handiwork in "Keeping Up with You," "Pretend We Never Met," "The Only Man in Town" (previewed on Saltwater Records' teaser EP, Baby It's Over), like a secret schoolgirl crush. Ditto the sultry, snake-charming, violin-trimmed pop of the most unique offering, "Lily la Tigresse." Moose mainmen K.J. "Moose" McKillop and Russell Yates remain consummate stylists, infecting every selection with charm, and most of all, seductive hooks. When "Lily la Tigresse" asks, with luscious sexual entreaty, "Why can't we be as nature planned?," it sums up the grace of the LP as a whole. Few albums can match this one for sublime elegance

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

The Telescopes The Telescopes


The Telescopes The Telescopes

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The Telescopes began as a run-of-the-mill British shoegazer band fully under the thrall of noise and My Bloody Valentine, perhaps a little angrier than most of that ilk but pretty unmemorable. At some point, however, they discovered subtlety and songcraft. They traded in most of their noise pedals for some that make the guitars go all spacy and phased-out. They also wrote a batch of songs with melodies and hooks reminiscent of Love or The Notorious Byrd Brothers-era Byrds. The songs on The Telescopes are built on acoustic guitars, then the aforementioned tricked-out electric guitars are laid on top and garnished with bongos, organs, pianos, and all sorts of classic instruments. Stephen Lawrie's vocals are restrained and semi-emotional and female backing vocals add a touch of sweetness that might otherwise be missing from the record, as the overall atmosphere is very moody and introspective. A large chunk of the credit should be given to producer Guy Fixsen, who also helmed some great records with Moose and Rollerskate Skinny and was a member of Laika. Sadly, the Telescopes split soon after this album came out, but the classic sound they came up with here lives on in bands like Mojave 3 and the Verve.

Saturday, 22 June 2019

EMF Epsom Mad Funkers The Best Of



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Regrettably, England's EMF had been seared with the curse of premature victory, sometimes belting out "Unbelievable" two or three times per show, and many assumed they'd be forever damned to run from their own success until the day they took off their long shorts and cut their hair. But Epsom Mad Funkers, an emphatic and touching tribute with new songs and a second disc of remixes, proves that what saved them from disaster was an anarchic instinct for just how to nail together the flotsam and jetsam of late-20th century chart music without sounding totally contrived. One moment you could get "Girl of an Age," the great, cherubic baggy anthem that never was, the next you'd be swimming about in megalomaniac, brain-rammed funk ("Perfect Day," "They're Here") or even a sort of facetious revelry, such as the live classic "EMF," which would rather stack up stylistic Lego blocks and smash them to pieces than try to mimic the picture on the box. For better or worse, nobody else sounded like this
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