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Sleepy Sun – Fever

May 13th, 2010 · 1 Comment · Alt-rock, Alternative, Folk/Acoustic, Music, New Wierd America, Pop/Rock, post-rock, Prog, Psychedelia

Sleepy Sun - Fever

Sleepy Sun - Fever

 

FIRST PUBLISHED AT THE LINE OF BEST FIT

Californian acid rockers Sleepy Sun follow up last year’s ‘Embrace’ with another serving of massive, sun-blasted riffs. On ‘Fever’, however,  they subvert the dynamics of ostentatious heaviosity by adding some infectious boy-girl folk pop ( ‘Ooh Boy’, ‘Rigamaroo’) and some compelling sonic curveballs that keep the listener guessing to the finish. Far from a study of hairy rock esoterica, Sleepy Sun makes light work of what could have been an exercise in ear-punishing psych.

Opener ‘Marina’ swings between desert rawk - all rattlesnakes and dust-bowl harmonica - and blissful folksiness before a total flip of script arrives in the form of swampy tribal rhythms and chanting that sounds like a New Age take on gospel. Perhaps it shouldn’t work but somehow it does.

There is something faintly Espers about the folk pop of ‘Rigamaroo’, while ‘Wild Machines’ sets a slightly hokey scene by chucking in some Ennio Morricone whistling into a sonic mêlée that includes preposterously monstrous riffage. Elsewhere there is a desert sunrise comedown (the appropriately titled ‘Acid Love’), peyote-noir (‘Open Eyes’) and a hint of protest on the scattershot rhythms of ‘Freedom Line’.

Yet the highlight of the album is surely ‘Desert God’, which shimmers into view like an improbable mirage. All heavily reverbed psyche-blues, it repeats the opening track’s total wind-change with a thumping harmonica breakbeat of sorts before some delightfully squiggly guitar solos.

Fans of, say, Spiritualised and Brightback Morning Light should enjoy ’Fever’; it may even suit fans of My Morning Jacket’s expansive early albums, albeit relocated from humid Kentucky to breezier Laurel Canyon. Recommended.

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The Very Best of David Holmes – The Dogs Are Parading

April 18th, 2010 · No Comments · dance, Music, Pop/Rock, post-rock, Prog, Psychedelia, Shoegaze, Soundtrack, Trip hop

holmes

David Holmes -The Dogs are Parading

FIRST PUBLISHED AT THE LINE OF BEST FIT

At some point over the last decade David Holmes’ brand of retro mishmashery seemed to fade from the zeitgeist despite the fact that the Northern Irish producer was reaching a wider audience (and no doubt keeping his bank manager happy) with soundtrack work. His turn to the movie business, principally for Steven Soderbergh, found an appropriate outlet for a producer whose jazzy, hipster vibes have always had a cinematic quality.

I found myself returning recently to that 1997 pre-millennial fave ‘Let’s Get Killed’ and finding that it still works very well. At the time,  Holmes seemed a jollier, less cerebral UK alternative to DJ Shadow’s murky vinyl esoteria, minus the state-of-the-hip hop-nation polemic. Both artists wore their record collector hearts on their sleeves, digging deep into the crate for rare grooves and forgotten pyschedelia with which to blend and splice impressionistically. Arguably (for this won’t be a popular statement) ’Let’s Get Killed’ has dated less. Bar the James Bond tomfoolery, the album compares favourably to the prog excesses and more ponderous moments of ‘Entroducing’, still cited as a great album of that decade (it is, of course).

Holmes was always more interested in cinema than hip hop, though, epitomised by the title of his debut “This Film’s Crap, Let’s Slash the Seats!” – an album much mined for its effectiveness as incidental music for television drama but somewhat dated now. Only the slow-motion farewell ‘Gone’ from that early effort makes the grade here, David Holmes’ rather premature ‘Best Of’ compilation, ‘The Dogs Are Parading’, and it blends in well.

However, ‘Let’s Get Killed’ is still the high point in a patchy five album career (not including the soundtrack work and compilations curated by him). Nowhere else was his brooding cinematic sampledelica better applied than that ‘concept album’, woven together around authentic sampled voices – some menacing, some eccentric – from the New York streets and underworld. That album’s enduring status is reflected in the heavy representation here with four fine tracks.

The soundtrack-to-an-unmade-movie conceit continued into 2000′s ‘Bow Down to the Exit Sign’ despite the prevalence of a host of guest singers including Bobby Gillespie, Jon Spencer and Martina Topley-Bird. However this album provided ammunition for critics who said dance music producers were unable to write songs for their mercenary guest vocalists. Incidentally, none of those contributors’ tracks make this compilation, but the fine instrumentals ’Hey Lisa’ and ’69 Police’ do. There is also ‘Living Room’, featuring Carl Hancock Rux, which typifies Holmes erstwhile tendency to overload the sonics to deflect from the weak songwriting.

Arguably David Holmes was at his best when following the zeitgeist, even if he couldn’t claim credit for dictating the trends in which he excelled. The weakest tracks on this compilation derive from his time with the Free Association (circa 2002), whose brand of jazzy trip hoppery – albeit in a band format – was already getting stale. The spasmodic, rather effected vocals of ’(I Wish I Had A) Wooden Heart’ and the cover version of ‘Sugarman’ sound like the works of someone riding an already outmoded bandwagon.

Funny then, that the compilation’s most recent cuts – from 2008′s The Holy Pictures – sound so fresh despite the rather blatant discovery of another revivalist bandwagon: shoegaze (or nu-gaze, as it has been known). Ironically, ‘I Heard Wonders’ and that album’s title track are probably the best vocal tracks Holmes has ever produced, all the more notable for the fact he sings them himself, thrilling pop replete with swerving Kevin Shields distortion and sugar coated reverb.

Overall this two-disk box-set, which includes three new tracks (“The Girlfriend Experience”, “You’re On Fire (Too Fat)” and “The Lower Orders”), works very well: the heady brew of instrumentals melding into a diaporama of filmic mood. While the second disk, which features a mixed bag of contemporaneous remixes of the singles by the likes of Andrew Weatherall, Arab Strap Mogwai and Kevin Shields, is of greater interest to completists (if there are David Holmes completists), ’The Dogs Are Parading’ is still one to stick on shuffle and let soundtrack your life.

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To Rococo Rot – Speculation

March 20th, 2010 · No Comments · Ambient, dance, Electronica, Music, post-rock

speculation

First published at The Line of Best Fit.

If the words “German electronica” conjure images of austere-looking men standing motionless behind synths in mono-coloured suits, or the “nihilist” baddies in The Big Lebowski, To Rococo Rot might help you abandon the stereotype. Stefan Schneider and brothers Robert and Ronald Lippok are a Berlin-based electronica and post-rock trio who have been blending digital and acoustic elements for almost 15 years. ‘Speculation’, their sixth full-length, is their warmest, most human album yet. Made in a secluded rural area of southern Germany with a simple studio set-up that enabled recording ”like a band playing a live show”, the bucolic surroundings and more freeform dynamic are evident in the results.

The band’s MySpace featues some interesting notes: “A record that celebrates uncertainty” may be a bit strong claim for an album which pleasures rather than challenges the ear, but I can see what they mean. The tracks are largely brief, and are cyclic rather than linear - simmering instead of evolving, “in a midpoint between propulsion and letting go”. They often fizzle out much the way they began, fittingly for band whose moniker is itself a palindrome (i.e., its reads the same forwards as backwards). 

Some tracks - like the understated opener ’Away’, with its rumbling post-punk bass loop augmented by jazzy flutters of  high end guitar - have an air of live improvisation about them. There is a delicate hesitancy to this live instrumentation which makes a nice counterpoint to the metronomic insistence of the beats. The jazziness deepens with the looser percussion of ‘Seele’, punctuated by deep piano chords and lush atmospherics, and ‘Horses’ which ripples under the auspices of some teasingly funky bass. The latter bleeds nicely into the sunlit chimes of ‘Forwardness’, which certainly wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Four Tet’s latest.

Elsewhere, there is a hint of Andrew Wetherall (Two Lone Swordsmen or even Sabres of Paradise) on the cinematic ‘Place It’, while there’s a hint of motorik – naturally – on the funkier climbs of ’Working Against Time’.  While  sonically experimental, ‘Speculation’ is not willfully cerebral or esoteric like the – now admittedly less fashionable – glitch end of IDM.  Don’t be intimidated by the German electronica tag, this is immediate stuff – few tracks outstay their welcome except for the cavernous ambient of closer ‘Friday’, which perculates in the background for 11-odd minutes. ‘Speculation’ might please fans of more expansive but easy-on-the-ear recent albums by Field and Four Tet, but it may not reward the deeper listening encouraged by those albums.

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Caught in the Beak>

October 24th, 2009 · 2 Comments · Alt-rock, Alternative, Music, post-rock, Prog, Psychedelia, Psychedelic

beak2

Beak

Beak>- Beak>

6.5/10

FIRST PUBLISHED AT THE LINE OF BEST FIT

Subterranean bass throbs, some cod-ghostly wailing and vaguely arabesque improvisations on a rusty sounding organ … ’Backwell’ is the opener of the self-titled debut album by Beak>, a new band including Portishead’s Geoff Barrow. With its slighty nauseating retro synths fanning out mechanically over chugging motorik, ‘Blackwell’ signposts an album of happy homage. The reference points range from the familiar (e.g., Can, NEU!, Joy Division) to the more esoteric (Silver Apples, early proponents of electronica-infused psych who resurfaced on the critical radar after being named as an influence for Portishead’s ‘Third’).

While Geoff Barrow and co.’s 2008 comeback was characterised by rockier, notably more Kraut textures than the trip hop torch songs with which they made their name in the 90s, Beak> sees Barrow teaming up with fellow Bristolians Billy Fuller and Matt Williams to explore this musical terrain untethered to the song-form constraints of Portishead proper.

The results are mixed. Recorded over a two week period, with little post-production trickery, it has the air of a jam and sometimes feels unfinished or at least rough around at the edges. The textures employed by Beak> are not dissimilar to those rendered by Broadcast’s antiquated studio equipment, but whereas Broadcast sculpted these textures into a beguiling retro-futuristic pop, Beak>’s insistence on evoking a certain authenticity is not so much impressionistic as orthodox.

‘Pill’ begins with some arabesque violin that sounds as if heard from the meagre air shaft of some underground cell. Thereafter the track evolves into a Krautrock dirge as played by some po-faced BBC workskop technicians from the 1970s with rather too much creative freedom. Thus we have the kind of haunted house prog folly that might have scored one of that period’s spooky children’s tv plays that have been a rich source of inspiration to electronica and, of late, Hauntology artists.

‘I know’ begins with a buzzing synth that sounds like a mobile phone interfering with your stereo – you know, as if there were a bee stuck in your speakers, before developing into the album’s most satisfyingly complete Krautrock number – a linear Teutonic pulse embellished by some subtly emotive bass playing that infuses the track with an understated melancholy.

‘Battery Point’ is less defined by the strictures of motorik, but is a rather graceful cloud of shimmering guitar reverb that washes back and forth for some six minutes or more, underlined by some grinding, low-slung bass and peaking with a Mogwai-style, high-end crescendo.

‘Iron Action’ returns to more propulsive territory, the sighing, semi-decipherable vocal utterances instantly redolent of Ian Curtis’s bleak vocals. Finally a wiggling synth frequency unlooses itself from the rigid discipline of the rhythm section, presumably at the turn of a dial, to pleasing effect.

‘Ears Have Ears’ is cavernous, unhinged dub while ‘Blagdon Lake’ is informed by ominous, blacker-than-black goth-tinged early 80s post punk, and reaches a climax with impressively metallic stabs of synthesised guitar that could score a drama about a radiation accident or toxic spill.

Thereafter the album loses its focus a bit, the  metallic screeches of ‘Barrow Gurney’ recalling Broadcast’s occasional moments of wilful anarchy, while ‘Dundry Hill’ and the Can-on-a-bad-day of ‘The Cornubia’ are unrelenting industrial dirge-core that trundle along oppressively under slate-grey skies. 

Beak>, with its Edgar Allan Poe-like moniker, is the result of Barrow’s unchecked obsession with a certain period of (mostly bleak) music. But its aesthetic of distilled misery – only half sincere – will test some listeners’ patience: Beak> is faithful to its influences but isn’t often more interesting than a work of pastiche.

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The life exotic

October 4th, 2009 · No Comments · Alt-country, Alternative, Folk/Acoustic, Music, Pop/Rock, post-rock

Exotic interlude

Homelife – Exotic Interlude

7/10

FIRST PUBLISHED AT THE LINE OF BEST FIT

The last time Homelife surfaced on my radar was with the 2002 Ninja Tune release ‘Flying Wonders‘, a whimsical and varied hotch-potch of exotic styles that was more than much of the hipster muzak coming out of the label at the time. Whereas then the core members Anton Burns and Paddy Steer were assisted by a veritable orchestra of multi-instrumentalists, the first impressions of the aptly-titled ‘Exotic Interlude’ is of a much more stripped-down sound, but the shuffling jazziness and dreaminess pervade. The result of several years of honed-down jams in the spectacularly crowded Homelife studio, the DIY ethos is belied by the intricacy of the musicianship: with Burns and Steer demonstrating prowess on an impressive range of stringed and percussive instruments.  It is, rather predictably, a folkier affair, but stops sliding onto the bandwagon by retaining the breezy character and charm of their earlier records.

Arguably ‘Exotic Interlude’ never returns to the heights of the two opening tracks: the folksy 60s psychedelia of ‘Circles’ and the lilting, Hawaiian-accented folk of ‘Along the Verge’.  Both tracks feature gently spiralling atmospherics and have an emotional resonance less evident in their earlier albums, particularly on the yearning second song. ‘Sunday Streets’ is a lonesome rustle of trees and dusky ambience, all twinkling atmospherics and steel guitar, world-weary but not quite desolate. This melancholic take on lounge gets a welcome reprise on the penultimate ‘Atlas’, which benefits from some reverb on the vocals that enhance the air of dreamy detachment.

Such creative vocal treatment is conspicuously absent on ‘Lincoln Square’ and ‘Lazy Man’, where the Afro-Caribbean rhythms and flutters of guitar might please fans of Vampire Weekend or even Dirty Projectors. However, both tracks deserve something less slight lyrically and melodically, and Burnside’s modest vocal range is rather exposed in the mix. ‘Everywhere’ is a more successful fusion of psychedelic whimsy and the exotic, while the darker, technically ambitious tabla ’n’ bass of ‘More Wine’ is a bit too busy.

With a theoretical side 1 and 2 book-ended by a couple of fine instrumentals - particularly the dark Hawaiian/Badalamente lounge of the title track – ‘Exotic Interlude’ is an atmospheric record and very nearly a low-key triumph but for a couple of lightweight moments that dilute, rather than compliment, the air of breezy effortlessness.

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Top of the pops

August 22nd, 2009 · 3 Comments · Alt-rock, Alternative, Ambient, Folk/Acoustic, Indie, Music, Pop/Rock, post-rock

popular-songs

FIRST PUBLISHED AT THE LINE OF BEST FIT

Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs

8.5/10

Perennial critics’ favourites Yo La Tengo return with an album that reigns in some of the magpie tendencies of 2006′s sprawling ‘I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass’ with a more focused set. ‘Popular Songs’ – their twelfth long-player – finds Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley getting the balance beautifully right between their experimental and eclectic urges and indie dream pop, with all the constituent parts pulling together into a satisfyingly evocative whole.

‘Popular Songs’ opens with some metallic drones which might prompt you to wonder if you had put the right CD on, before a thrilling swirl of strings, washing synths and tweaked vocals usher in something unexpectedly psychedelic. But despite the saturated bass and jazzy, distorted keyboard solos, ‘Here to Fall’ is still a smartly centred pop track. By contrast, ‘Avalon or Someone’ is perhaps more representative of what most people think is the Yo La Tengo ‘sound’, a perfect slice of falsetto nostalgia pop, the fuzzily remembered and achingly felt.

‘By Two’s is a nocturnal mood piece of eerie woodland atmospherics: “Hush little Baby, don’t you cry … cross over to the other side’, whispers Hubley ominously. While ‘Nothing to hide’ is a more generic if catchy indie rocker, ‘Periodically Double of Triple’ is all geek soul with organ stabs and funky bass, with Kaplan bemoaning that he has “Never read Proust … sounds a little too long / Never used a hammer … without somehow using it wrong”. Before it starts to sound a bit daft there’s a wonky little breakdown of sorts before the track fades out on a Fisher Price organ wig out and playful harmonies.

While “If it’s true’ is more saccharine 60s chamber pop, ‘I’m On My Way’ is world-weary and fragile. “I tried to be brooding and dark but it all fell through” Kaplan murmurs on the latter while gentle tablas underline a romantic swell to the music that peaks with a lilting, almost Latin guitar solo. This consistent sequence of delicate melodiousness continues with the perfect Belle & Sebastian pop of ‘When it’s Dark’ and  dreamily mournful ‘All Your Secrets’, the latter’s ‘do-do do-do’ harmonies echoed by a poignantly fragile organ.

The final two tracks are longer, more impressionistic pieces. ‘More Stars Than There Are in Heaven’ is the stauncher of the two, building on fuzzy, low end guitars and repeated, interlocking harmonies (“We’ll walk hand in hand”). The tangled layers of guitar evolve and stretch out into an engaging and evocative epic – a warm blur of bleeding and receding shapes “right before your very eyes”.

Longer still ‘The Fireside’ is indeed the flickering grate of glowing embers the title promises, beginning with heavily reverbed acoustic guitar and ambient drones. Less linear than the preceding track, it very slowly gathers momentum with a little rhythmic strum about four minutes in, underpinning the track with (albeit meditative) purpose that peaks with a detached vocal.

A beguiling album full of rich musicianship and irresistable melodies that charm and haunt in equal measure, ‘Popular Songs’ will keep drawing you back for another listen.

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Where the wild things are

July 26th, 2009 · 2 Comments · Alt-rock, Alternative, Indie, Music, Pop/Rock

wild-beasts

FIRST PUBLISHED AT THE LINE OF BEST FIT

Wild Beasts – Two Dancers

8.5/10

On their first album ‘Limbo Panto’ Wild Beasts got painted by some as peddlers of a contrived English eccentricity that was unfashionably arch, all barbershop harmonies and old world camp. While many were turned off by their falsetto front man Hayden Thorpe, whose gymnastic vocals always seemed to be accompanied in print with the disclaimer ‘deal-breaker’, a militant few argued that they were the modern heirs to The Smiths. The similarities are evident, Wild Beasts sing about modern Britain – chip shops and glottal stops – with a elegiac but humourous eye, while their sound is informed by the 1980s ‘Brit jangle’ of Morrissey and co. Very much a love it or hate it proposition, one could have been forgiven for doubting Wild Beasts’ chances of longevity in Britain’s faddish new music landscape. On ‘Two Dancers’, however, they will surely silence the doubters, having smoothed down some of the rougher edges without sacrificing their oddball spirit.  The falsetto is still there; tempered perhaps, but as much by tighter song structures than a reigning-in of their musical personality.

For listeners braced for pantomime histrionics, the album begins in quite low-key fashion. The jangling guitars and synth washes on the gently propulsive ‘The Fun Powder Plot’ and ‘Hooting and Howling’ recall New Order, although the vocals on the latter have the more fragile register of Antony Hegarty. Neither title quite prepares for the lush, elegant and expansive pop within, which in turn belies the wackier lyrics. “This is a booty call … my boot, my boot your arsehole!‘ coos Thorpe on the ridiculously monikered opener – a song that is more malice than mockery. Likewise, ‘Hooting and Howling’ seems to bemoan thuggish behaviour with a Morrissey-esque, outsider melancholy. This is not four-square, meat and potatoes rock (i.e., it sounds nothing like Oasis): there is a lot of space in the mix, the music awakens gracefully and evolves in a watercolour blur that also recalls Cocteau Twins.

‘All The King’s Men’ picks things up considerably and is both one of the albums catchiest songs and the most obvious distillation of the Beasts sound: marching rhthms, arch lyrics, modern British reference points. Deeper-voiced Bassist Tom Fleming takes the lead, with a tongue-in-cheek roll call to Girls from Shipley …  girls from Hounslow … girls who need me … girls who feed me“, that is both funny and sinister. Equally brilliant is the lush, epic pop of ‘We Still Got The Taste Dancing On Our Tongues’, an elegy to youth and adventure that can stay in the head for days and has more than just a hint of early U2 in its choppy, shimmering guitars.

The two-part title track, fronted again by Tom Fleming, is more mournful and thus less immediate, but still instrumentally rich, with Thorpe underlining Fleming’s vocals with little falsetto flutters on the world-weary reprise. The propulsive Peter Hook bass of ‘This is Our Lot’ doesn’t really stop the feeling of the album’s slow descent into more sombre, achingly nostalgic moods on the second part of the album. This sense is only offset by the more redemptive – in atmosphere at least – ‘The Empty Nest’: a sashaying, dovetailing journey home that again encapsulates Wild Beasts yearning, romantic charm.

Overall, ‘Two Dancers’ is a satisfying, beguiling record that takes a number of listens to fully bed in. The sensual, appropriately dreamy ‘When I’m Sleepy’ and the twilight ghostliness of ‘Underbelly’ provide impressionistic interludes to counterpoint the more epic tracks elsewhere. Surely one of the year’s best albums by a British band, ‘Two Dancers’ has the blend of invention and pop sensibility that seems to have been largely lacking on this side of the Atlantic in recent years. The revolution starts here.

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Summer music round-up

July 5th, 2009 · 2 Comments · Alt-country, Alt-rock, Alternative, dance, Electronica, Folk/Acoustic, Music, Pop/Rock, Psychedelia, Shoegaze

I never thought it would happen to me but finally I’ve succumbed to external pressures and have been unable to update this blog with any regularity. Firstly, I’ve been concentrating efforts on a new English-language website for my new home town, Grenoble, in south-east France. Secondly, I’ve recently become a father for the first time. Enough said.

Instead of the usual in-depth (and exceedingly hyperbolic) music, book and film reviews, I’ve done a little summary of my current listening habits.

Vecktamist – Grizzly Bear

grizzly-bear

This one weighs heavily under the burden of its own hype for me. A very accomplished record with many delights but its sometimes perhaps a bit too over-wrought production-wise, the result of much handringing in the studio I supect. Thus on one hand there is a greater lucidity and pop sensibility than on ‘Yellow House‘, it’s predecessor, but arguably less of that album’s perculiar bucolic charm. There are a few more ponderous tracks where lightness of touch is foresaken for bombastic gravitas. Listening to it right now, some of what I am writing seems rather churlish give how great tracks such as ‘Two Weeks’ are. But while it’s clearly one of the year’s better records, is it really better than Grizzly Bear member Dan Rossen’s album of last year ‘In Ear Park‘ under the Department of Eagles’ guise? Time will tell.

Wilco – W’ilco (the album)

wilco

This one won’t please fans of the band who had been hoping for an about-turn to the more impressionistic dissonance of ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot‘ and ‘A Ghost is Born‘. Others, like me, will be temporarily peeved by the thowaway in-jokery of the album title and opening track ‘Wilco (the song)’. Not a concept album this, but while it continues in the vein of the more conventional alt-country pop of ‘Sky Blue Sky‘, the overall effect is arguably more satisfying: great pop songs embellished with the band’s typically intricate musicianship. The devil, as always with Wilco, is in the detail; and while this is unabashedly up-beat, at times joyous stuff, there is plenty of sonic invention to marvel at throughout.

Bibio – Ambivalence Avenue

bibio

Have to thank Robert Pisani for putting me on to this one, out on Warp. It’s a curious mix of Boards of Canada’s tape-fuddled nostalgia, Californian psych and filtered Baleric synth pop, just right for these sweltering July days.

The Field – Yesterday and Today

field

Axel Willner, follows his acclaimed ‘From Here We Go Sublime’ with another album of pulsating, blissfully shimmering techno. Whereas Sublime was a touch too minimal for my tastes, ‘Yesterday and Today’ is more richly textured but equally epicwith an fuzzy, shoe-gazey quality that welcomes listeners normally alienated by more orthodox techno.

Lindstrøm & Prins Thomas – II

lindstrom

The Norwegian producers return with an album that is as much groove-based psychedelia as cosmic disco. An album to get pleasantly lost in; a lusciously produced, multi-instrumental pleasure from start to finish. Epic and evolving but always human and accessible, this couldn’t categorically be called ‘dance’ music – some of this sounds like German psych pioneers Can. A label-defying treat.

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“We don’t want other worlds, we want mirrors”

June 5th, 2009 · 4 Comments · Film

solaris

Solaris- Steven Soderbergh

Andrei Tarkovsky’s acclaimed 1972 version of Stanisław Lem’s science-fiction novel Solaris was a film I liked to pretend I enjoyed and understood as a wanabee film-buff adolescent. With hindsight the film remained largely obscure to me then, bar some strikingly illusory imagery, particularly those in the memorable final sequence. I haven’t had the opportunity to re-view the film since my old Connoisseur Video copy – remember them, art-house film nerds? – went mouldy in my mother’s garage, having befallen whatever fate is meant to befall the VHS cassette, that most fallible and obsolete of recordable media.

I missed Steven Soderbergh’s take on Lem’s novel, and was horrified to realise that it was released in 2002. Naturally, I was interested to see it when it came out and the fact that seven years have passed since then had me pondering the kinds of unanswerable questions about the perplexing nature of time and adulthood that might make a fitting theme for some interminably long Tarkovsky film. Some brief forays into the internet tell me that the Soderberg film followed in the footsteps of Andrei Tarkovsky’s acclaimed 1972 film epic by focusing largely on the human element of the original story, even if it consumes almost an hour less viewing time. Marketing problems (George Clooney! In space! Pondering the nature of self with an alien replica of his dead wife?! It’s gonna be a hit!) contributed to the film’s grossing well under budget. I might never have seen it had it not been for my old friend Dan Morelle, who sent a copy of the movie – like a true gent – along with a package including presents for my newborn daughter. Thanks again Dan!

It is not surprising that Soderbergh’s ‘Solaris’ wasn’t a blockbuster, being both a film about loss and the fallibility of memory. As in the Tarkovsky version, Soderbergh focuses on the mind-expanding philoshophical implication in Lev’s novel, that the memories which nourish us are often deceptive or even erroneous. Clooney’s dead wife is cloned, by an alien presence, from memories that have warped and deteriorated like old VHS. This 2002 version also retains something of the mood of unnerving isolation and menace that pervaded the original, which was fittingly dubbed the Russian 2001: A Space Odyssey, if not for its running time then for its depiction of humanity out of its element in a universe of rules and presences far beyond its comprehension. “We don’t want other worlds, we want mirrors”, says one character; and it is mirrors they receive, but otherworldly mirrors with mind-altering reflections.

Despite George Clooney and the slick visuals, Soderbergh’s Solaris is finally a low-key, if thought-provoking meditation on love, memory and mortality. If the ending lacks the stunning illusory sequence of the Tarkovsky version, the Soderbergh treatment is somehow simultaneously reassuring and profoundly unsettling: a love that will never die, but also a love that is a faded facsimile of the real thing. “I was haunted by the idea that I remembered her wrong. That somehow I was wrong about everything”, says Clooney’s character, hinting at the absolute loneliness of living with one’s memories. The existential theme running through the film makes it a very human drama, like all the best science-fiction, and recalls comparable threads in Blade Runner. If in the Ridley Scott film we are left to contemplate our own mortality, Solaris deals with an equally dispiriting finitude: the finitude of memory. Both films, of course, also question what constitutes being human.

The mood of isolation and alien menace from both Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Kubrick’s opus is recalled here in no small part by the György Ligeti-esque score, while the rain-lashed metropolis of the sequences on Earth reminded me again of Blade Runner. In fact, the general slickness of the imagery brings Ridley Scott to mind, though the CGI-generated, gracefully orbiting space stations evoke little of the more tangible awe of Blade Runner’s model work (or indeed 2001′s rather suggestive spaceship embarkation to the Blue Danube Waltz, or even Star Wars’ awesome Imperial Star Destroyer). Incidentally a new film, ‘Moon’ starring Sam Rockwell, looks set to kick-start the model work revival, despite having a premise that sounds like the scripts of Solaris and 2001 accidentally mixed up and stitched back together. I’m excited to see it in any case, check out the trailer here.

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Black tie, White Denim

May 30th, 2009 · No Comments · Alt-rock, Alternative, Film, Folk/Acoustic, Indie, Music, Pop/Rock, post-rock, Prog, Psychedelia

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FIRST PUBLISHED AT THE LINE OF BEST FIT

White Denim – Fits

8/10

Such is the strength and depth (to borrow a football cliché) of music Stateside at the moment that I find myself with three acts on heavy rotation at the moment from Austin, Texas, alone. OK, so Spoon haven’t done anything lately but they’re a band I revisit frequently, while Bill Callahan’s ‘Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle‘ is one of my favourites of 2009 thus far. White Denim is the latest addition to my Austin catalogue and some casual Googling reveals other familiar names that have breezed through my ipod shuffle at one time or another: The Octopus Project , Okkervil River, Explosions in the Sky, to name a few. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, Austin is the self-styled “Live Music Capital of the World’, a bold claim for only the 16th-largest city in the US (thanks Wikipedia). I haven’t seen White Denim live, but if ‘Fits’ is anything to go by, they must be an exciting prospect.

An exhilarating rush that channels garage rock, psych, hardcore, classic rock and much more besides, ‘Fits’ achieves what Crystal Antlers’ ear-splitting ‘Tentacles‘ didn’t quite: the spasmodic appropriation of multitudinous music styles into three-minute epics. Whereas on Tentacles the detail was often lost in a vortex of organ shredding, White Denim’s shape-shifting excesses are easier to track, despite their brevity. Far from being music for the attention-span depleted, White Denim are sonic adventurers who retain a pop lucidity while busily blowing your mind. There are outrageous Jimmy Page riffs, jazzy codas, bubbly skanks, lo-fi loops; seemingly no rules at all in fact on this restlessly inventive album.

The opener ‘Radio milk how can you stand it’ sets a ferocious tempo of sensationally OTT guitar soloing and a pummelling rhythm section before flipping the script mid-way through, as they have a tendency to do, to craft something wholly new out of chaos that preceded. The album remains at this volatile high tempo with ‘All Consolation’, which is like the distilled climax to some almighty jam, while the rifftastic ‘Say What You Want’ ends with some kind monster duel between guitar and sitar. By the fourth track, sung in Spanish, it’s all getting a bit much, even if the record is barely 10 minutes old, that the comparatively restrained – yet still frankly riotous – ‘I Start to Run’ is a freshener. Irrestistibly funky, ‘I Start to Run’ is equal parts White Riot and The White Stripes: shouty vocals, a rollicking, stripped-down rhythm section, and another mid-point parlour trick – this time being a dubby skank pulled out of an apparently invisible Rastafarian hat.

The next four tracks seem to come in pairs: ‘Sex Prayer’ – a jazzy instrumental interwoven with skuzzy lo-fi loops – forms a cauldron of reverb-heavy psych with ‘Mirrored and Reverse’ , while ‘Paint Yourself’ (“You’re always looking at yourself, deciding what you do not want to see”) and the unjustifiably short ‘I’d Have it just the way we were’ comprise a couple of jaunty, tripped-out ballads. ‘Regina holding hands’ later resumes this mood before erupting into improbably brilliant power pop, while ‘Syncn’ ends the album on an impressionistic note: a hushed collage of loops and a fragile falsetto from James Petralli. Rousing, riotous stuff!

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