Saturday, December 12, 2009

Newly Discovered Old Music – The Test Icicles.

So I’m not as cool as I like to pretend. Plenty of great music gets past me. I’m left to the slightly embarrassing task of trying to catch up with others who really were there when it happened. This year the biggest missed opportunity which revealed itself was 2005s “For Screening Purposes Only,” by the Test Icicles.

This band from London would have gone completely under my radar if it wasn’t that singer Dev left the group and went on to become Lightspeed Champion, releasing one of RSL’s best albums of 2008.

Having become completely obsessed with Lightspeed, I was looking around for more by Dev, and the Test Icicles appeared dimly on the horizon. This is no longer easy stuff to get hold of, but my best-kept source for digging out hidden musical gems (my mother) doggedly tracked it down in a second-hand store in Manchester (UK).

So now the hunt is over, what do the Test Icicles sound like? Coming from Lightspeed to this, I don’t think I have ever heard a more jarring change of direction in any musician’s career. Where Lightspeed is slight and subtle and crafted to perfection, “For Screening Purposes Only” is a heavy, blasting album that feels like it could tear your head off. It’s vicious and cutting, and you wonder how Dev could sing another note after just first track ‘Your biggest mistake’ comes to an end.

Though it is absolutely not what I was looking for at the time, The Test Icicles can’t be ignored. They are a really explosive band that you’ll keep playing even when it hurts to hear any more. If you ever come across their CD, and feel you need a sonic battering that feels like an actual battering, remember that they come highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Manic Street Preachers Grow Old Gracefully

In the 1990s British music scene there were hardly any bands faster and more furious than The Manic Street Preachers. Leading the charge of Welsh guitar bands in the period, the Manics were also among the most radical of them, both musically and politically.

Then of course, there was James Dean Bradfield’s voice: searing; hugely powerful; completely idiosyncratic.

Most of all their story – enduring the (presumed) death of guitarist Richey Edwards, and still managing to produce very successful, sweeping musical anthems in the aftermath – was a narrative as moving as that of New Order’s birth out of Joy Division. We wanted them to win, out of such adversity, and they did.

The Manics, then...

...and now

This year’s new release from the band though, “Journal for Plague Lovers,” really retains only one of these three elements, which had commanded our interest. The album is still marked by Bradfield’s almost operatic singing. The Manics have become something I think they would have been horrified by a decade ago though: tame.

There are a lot of similarities with this story of gentle decline and that of Supergrass’s, another 90s act whose first album, ‘I should coco,’ had an energy that even admittedly engaging later work could never match. Supergrass had a great voice to lead it too, and an incredible force that has now dissipated.

At fault I think is over-production that evens out both bands’ music to the point where it is just too clear and digestible, and has had the jagged thrall of energy that I feel sure they could still muster hammered out of it. After all, it seems unfair to assume age is the issue alone. There are plenty of older bands that keep up the pace (even much older – I saw the Buzzcocks a little while ago storm through a set at the old Axis). This over-polished production is remarkable, because no less a studio master than Steve Albini was responsible for it.

I suppose The Manics shouldn’t be expected to produce endless, increasingly worn-out parodies of their initial work. What we have from The Manics this time around though is a pale version of their early stuff, and it doesn’t offer a new kind of sound to replace what’s missing of the old one.

“Journal for Plague Lovers” is not a terrible album – it’s ‘solid,’ even ‘dependable.’ A band that has produced such powerful work in the past though, can hardly be satisfied with that.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Lou Barlow's "Goodnight Unknown"

Lou Barlow has released his new album, “Goodnight Unknown,” only a matter of weeks after “Farm,” Dinosaur Jr’s latest effort, on which he played bass. You have to wonder, given this proximity, how the two projects fit together, and I’m happy to report the answer is ‘not well at all.’ While I have already written about the incredibly complacency of those involved in phoning it in on “Farm,” it appears Lou has used the funds from that debacle to produce, in “Goodnight,” his most interesting work in some years.

There is a short film about the making of the album available here. I’ve tried not to let this documentary color my perspectives on the project. I think I’ve failed. Listening to Lou narrate images of his life working on “Goodnight” – setting-up and then re-configuring his home ‘studio;’ recording the sounds of child’s toys to make ambient sounds; working 9-5 on the album and then returning emoh to play with his 4yr-old daughter – I am left feeling jealous of the resources being a member of Dinosaur Jr has offered him to work, and intimidated by the snatches of music that have been born of it. When I turn back to the album itself, the final product is not quite so overwhelming an experience as his hard work on the film might suggest, but it’s not far off.

Why am I not as head-over-heels in love as I was about “The Freed Man” or “Bakesale?” Lou seems to move frustratingly on and off the target at some points on this album, as if he didn’t know himself what sometimes makes him truly one of the best songwriters I’ve ever heard. Above all for me, those other albums set the standard for intimacy in music in two ways: they are musically more slight and simple than almost anything else ever recorded, and lyrically they are as open and candid as you might hope to confess on your deathbed.

Not to all tastes, this kind of songwriting (and not even to Lou’s at times it seems), but when it’s done well it’s a consummate enactment of connection between songwriter and listener. And there are moments of this king of bond on “Goodnight,” which is quite an achievement for someone writing their 20th or perhaps 30th album. “One Note Tone” is a song that could stand pretty well with ‘classics’ of his own genre like “Mystery Man,” “Two Years Two Days” or “Poledo.” “Too Much Freedom” is also poignant like tunes of old.

All in all, how much can we ask of Lou – That he matches or betters his best at every turn? Hardly likely, and hardly fair. He has written an album in which he digs once more into his own deep life, and we can enjoy hearing the sometimes stumbling results.

Friday, October 16, 2009

ART BRUT, tonight at Middle East Downstairs!

Going to a show in this day and age should not be a maudlin affair where we all commune over our sorry lives, our deep angst at the world and our lost loves – it should be FUN! This Friday night at Middle East Downstairs you can join a real musical party, when London’s Art Brut headline a night of breakneck punk with plenty of humor in the mix.

The last time Art Brut came to Middle East, singer Eddie Argos was nearly thrown out of the show, mistaken by security for a drunken fan who was dancing on the bar, chanting, with an ecstatic audience, that “MODERN ART… MAKES ME… WANT TO ROCK OUT!” It was a great night of entertainment, and now Art Brut return with a new album, “Art Brut vs. Satan,” and a hilarious new single to head it up, called, appropriately enough for them, “Alcoholics Unanimous.” How can you resist a title like that!

Art Brut are supported by some interesting up-and-comers from California. “Princeton” are a four-piece who mix shoegazing with airy-pop to create tunes which lighten our spirits. They are touring to support their brand new debut album, “Cocoon of Love,” and are well worth getting there early for. The opening act, Tab the Band, have been creating some buzz lately on the local scene (not to mention some nationally too, getting a Rolling Stone review into the bargain!). They should get things going for us very well indeed. See you down there.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Tom Thumb's "We never die"

Tom Thumb was already a favorite at RSL when I joined the crew a year ago. I had some catching up to do. On the night I first met Ryan, he led me over to Great Scott’s to see Andy Arch (the solo name behind the Tom Thumb project) play songs from his 2008 “The Taxidermist” album. It didn’t take much to be convinced. After that show, I listened to his new CD, “We never die,” with some trepidation – could he perform the acrobatics of building a whole second album to similar effect?

“We never die” comes stutteringly to life with a lone mandolin. It is a very human sound, unpolished to the point where it belies Arch’s mastery of his instrument(s). I’m pleased to say that this slight introduction to opening track “Olivia” sets the tone for a very intimate journey that is at least as moving and euphoric in turns as anything on “The Taxidermist.”

Arch’s lyrics are intricate, leaping from compacted image to image, sometimes amusing, often touching, and never prosaic. Though there is poignancy, my overriding emotional response is simply to revel in Arch’s complex play between the celebratory and sad.

All this joyous music builds, like any really great album, to a delicate crescendo in “Acid Rain.” Playing this song, among several from the last album, at a show in Boston some months ago, this was immediately a stand out. Here on the CD it makes clear that Arch knows not just how to write a lyric, or just how to write a song, but the dying art of how to write an album. “Acid Rain” caps off a project that seals Tom Thumb’s place as the best solo artist to come out of Boston in some years.

You are lucky this week, because not only can you pick up this great new Tom Thumb album (, but you can also see the start of his fall tour begin, this Friday at the whitehaus in Jamaica Plain. If you live outside Boston, make sure you catch him at one of the following shows across America:

10.10.09 - Biddeford, ME @ the hfs annex

10.11.09 - Keene, NH @ Toadstool Bookshop

10.13.09 - Jamestown, NY @ Labyrinth Press Co.

10.16.09 - Brooklyn, NY@ Sycamore

10.20.09 - Penland, NC @ Penland School of Crafts Coffeehouse

10.21.09 - Chapel Hill, NC @ Caffe Driade

10.23.09 - Atlanta, GA @ Star Bar

10.24.09 - Athens, GA @ 2nd Annual Southern Celebration of Life

10.28.09 - Indianapolis, IN

10.29.09 - Urbana, IL

10.30.09 - Chicago, IL

10.31.09 - Lincoln, NE @ Clawfoot House

11.2.09 - Denver, CO

11.5.09 - Boulder, CO

11.7.09 - Las Vegas, NV @ the Cloud Hidden House

11.10.09 - San Luis Obispo, CA @ the Clubhouse

11.28.09 - Port Townsend, WA @ the Boiler Room

12.5.09 - Madison, WI @ the project lounge

12.6.09 - Chicago, IL @ the Orphanage

12.10.09 - Rochester, NY @ Boulder Coffee Co

12.14.09 - Portsmouth, NH @ the Red Door

Sunday, August 23, 2009

RIP Dinosaur Jr (Please).

Dinosaur Jr changed my life. Sometime over the summer of 1993, my first girlfriend gave me a vinyl copy of “You’re living all over me.” I am at a loss for words, or space in this post, to explain all the implications of this album on my mind, or on where my life went from that moment. This may sound rather melodramatic, but it really is hard to over-estimate the effect of the band on me over the years.

But all things must pass. Dinosaur’s new album “Farm” marks, after over twenty years, the death of the band. Only the bands you are truly close to can really let you down, and really raise your ire. That is true in this case. I have to confess that listening to “Farm” makes me feel angry. It is so complacent. It so completely misunderstands what made the band fantastic for many, many years, as if the deep connection I thought I had made with what J, Lou and Murph were doing was hollow.

Its guitar tone is certainly loud, but somehow it’s clean and regular in a way the early Jr seemed dead-set against. The solos are casual and tuneless, an exercise in posturing instead of a representation of angst or pain. The lyrics have a ‘by numbers’ feel to them which would make J Mascis of old roll in his metaphorical grave. Where they got everything right with “Dinosaur,” “Bug,” and “You’re living all over me,” and produced a lot of great material on the many albums that followed, “Farm” is the antithesis of that immensely powerful, immensely beautiful sound.

In a few weeks you will have to chance to make your own mind up, because Dinosaur Jr are coming to Boston on tour. Will I be there? After listening to “Farm” over the last few weeks, it’s going to be a truly difficult decision. I suppose it should really be about letting go – of my youthful exuberance, and of the notion that Jr could be endlessly inspiring. That would be a lot easier though, if they would let me go too, and stop flogging their crumpled image to me, as if I were still besotted.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Maximo Park’s “Quicken the Heart”

Rarely has there been so much controversy about an album in the RSL writer’s team that I am a member of, than about this one. Long-standing friendships have ended, bitter words have been thrown, violence has ensued, lawyers have been called… well, a few of us have sent some sarcastic emails to each other at least. I must give credit for his wit to one other writer on the team, who is otherwise a big fan of the band, for renaming them “Minimo Park” after hearing this album.

How can I defend MAXimo Park from ‘vicious’ attacks like this? Well, in all seriousness, “Quicken the Heart,” Maximo Park’s third album, is possibly the best new music I have heard in the last six months. New is perhaps a strange word to use, because “Quicken the Heart” harkens back to a lot of older music, particularly from the 80s. It’s an album that is heavy with vintage synths and clean guitar hooks. The pacing of the songs too, has something about it that makes you feel like you’re watching a band who aren’t aware that they could play harder with a drum machine, and so achieve every ounce of energy they produce by simply throwing themselves at their instruments. Having seen them live (and they will be back at Paradise on 20th Sept, so you can too!), I can imagine them doing just that as they play these tracks.

This band has a star performer though, who lifts them from just good melodies and interesting hooks, to something really remarkable. Singer Paul Smith writes songs of love and romance that seem vintage like the rest of the band. I would hold Smith’s lyrical abilities up against anyone writing today though. He then sings these fantastic, emotive lines with a voice that sounds so desperately strained that even those with a heart of stone begin to wilt under the pressure. There is so much sadness in this music, but so much celebration of life too: of affairs loved but now over (“Tanned”), of brief, beautiful moments held between lovers (“Questing, not Coasting”), and of the excitement of fledgling relationships (“I Haven’t Seen Her in Ages”).

This is probably not the best album this band has produced, but, like a new summer romance, I can see nothing but the beauty of my current love.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Jarvis Cocker's "Further Complications"

One good way to think about Jarvis Cocker’s new solo album, ‘Further Complications,’ is as rather like the music of another truly classic songwriter, who you might not think shares much in common with Cocker. I speak of the ruler of sinister himself… Nick Cave.

Both men have such intelligent and subtle lyrical constructions that you wonder if they write poems to which they set music, or the other way around. Both men are capable of dark humor and cynicism, but also seem to give us moments that are touchingly familiar. Both have longstanding involvement with seminal bands (Pulp and the Bad Seeds respectively) that have produced lots of great music over the last couple of decades. Both, perhaps most pointedly for the purposes of a review of this album, have solo/side projects in which they show the angrier, dirtier side of their sound.

Nick Cave released this first album with side project ‘Grinderman’ in 2008, and played some of the heaviest sounding music he’s ever done on it. To move, more or less consciously, from the 90s disco core of Pulp to something rather like Grinderman, Cocker called on an absolute master of the industrial and vicious. Producer Steve Albini has worked with PJ Harvey and Fugasi, Nirvana and The Breeders among (many) others, and each time has found the most live and furious sound those artists have ever produced. On this album, tracks like “Fuckingsong” were recorded live in Albini’s Electrical Audio studio in Chicago, and give the album an edgy and muddy feel which is really a great new direction for Cocker.

In the album’s title track Cocker sings: “I was not born in wartime/ I was not born in pain or poverty/ I need an addiction, I need a affliction/ to cultivate my personality.” It’s a witty lyric, but it’s also a bitter sentiment that could have sat well on the ‘Grinderman’ set-list. Who would have thought that the writer of pop classics like ‘Common People’ and ‘Lipgloss’ would put down music like this. It’s good for us that his did – ‘Further Complications’ is close to the best work Cocker has ever had a hand in.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Doves and Wild Light are coming!

The greatest shows are not the ones where you get to see the best bands you can pull to a particular venue on a particular night. They are the shows where everything seems to fit together and you’re really there to see one big performance with multiple bands playing the acts. Coming up on June 7th is a show that just might work out like that: Manchester UK’s Doves play the House of Blues that night, and they will be supported by New Hampshire’s Wild Light.

Wild Light are a band which I might want to call local because they’re great, and I’d like to feel that they are ‘mine,’ sitting here in Boston. Even if that’s a stretch, the band did win a Boston Music Award last year, before their debut album even came out. They have also toured with Tapes ‘N Tapes in the past, and have just got back from a stint with The Killers.

Doves really are mine, because, as I’ve said before, Doves come from my long-lost hometown in Northern England. This gig, to support their new, fourth, album “Kingdom of Rust,” is Doves first in Boston for several years, and you’d be a fool to miss it, because they are one of the better live acts in England right now.

Best of all, these two bands compliment each other really well, both playing cleverly holistic melodies on bass and guitar, which make them sound musically warm and inviting. Go and see them both, not for either one, but for a whole night of moving music.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Back to Back Ryan's Smashing Life Shows coming up!

This coming week is a big one for the Boston music scene. New England's most popular music blog, Ryan's Smashing Life, is sponsoring TWO shows in a row at Berklee's Cafe 939 on Boylston Street, which are open to all.

Check out RSL for reviews of the bands and sample tracks for both Friday May 29th and Saturday May 30th.

Don't come along to show your support for the scene - these show won't need your charity (they may even sell out!). Come along instead because you want to see a couple of nights of really great music for just $10 a piece. Highlight of both shows for me will likely be acoustic virtuoso Tom Thumb (who I've written about before) on Friday 29th, but there will be lots of other great stuff to see as well.

I hope to see you down there.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Manchester Orchestra at Middle East Downstairs

The bands on the bill Thursday night at Middle East have to fight hard to be heard. They struggle not with technical problems, but with a city transfixed by the Celtic’s triple overtime playoff fight. Bands come and go as the majority of the audience give them only glancing attention, between shouts and cries at three point shots in final seconds, and desperate fouls.

Andy Hull of headliner act Manchester Orchestra knows how to handle this problem: don’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. As crowds huddle around the one old TV in the place, a bearded and hooded Hull pushes past to see the final moments of the game. Only once it’s all over does he turn and move past the boundary to the backstage to prepare to play.

When he appears on stage, he is also smart enough to open with the line “Fuck the Bulls.” It doesn’t seem that he needed to win the crowd over with this comment though - They are all with him from the first. Several times his singing is just about drowned out by the audience’s voice as it follows him. The band seem comfortable with this. Perhaps, fresh from their Letterman performance the day before, they are ready for the big-time audiences that are coming to them. We only hope they will keep their feet on the ground enough to write more songs like the vicious “Pride,” and not be swallowed whole by the PR and labels and producers who are surely poised to jump on them.

But things look good for the band in that department – they aren’t taking themselves too seriously, playing a cover of The Proclaimer’s cult classic “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” at one point, between their own rock epics. Manchester Orchestra are a band with a load of potential and a great live show. Check them out, on tour with Audrye Sessions.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Doves - Kingdom of Rust

The other day I came across the review of Doves’ new album, “Kingdom of Rust,” in an unlikely place: Rolling Stone. You might think it quite surprising that I was looking inside a Rolling Stone in the first place, but even more surprising was the fact that Rolling Stone were bothered to write even a short piece about Doves, a band from the UK that hardly cause a ripple over here. Soon I understood though – it was an opportunity to open with the following byline: “UK trio create epic tunes about (what else?) boring UK.”

What can I say about this kind of thoughtful journalism, but try and write a little about the Doves album that reaches past the merely trite…

I have to work hard not to be swept away by “Kingdom of Rust.” Doves make me melancholy. Their music is moving, but I must confess there is something more particular about my sadness in this case. Doves are from my long-lost hometown of Manchester (UK!), so I’m not claiming journalistic objectivity this time around, but then again, I don’t think I’m completely off the mark when I say that “Kingdom of Rust” is a really warm, engaging album. Doves’ bass driven song construction, mixed with Jimi Goodwin's vocals, create tracks that are much less elaborate then their hometown counterparts Elbow, but remain capable of being similarly ‘epic’ – here, at least, the Rolling Stone piece has some value.

Tracks like “10.03” are an achievement the band should be really proud of, building to a frenzy you might not expect from their commonly seen malaise. “Compulsion” too, shows that Doves have some swagger in them too, along with all the poetry.

Doves are definitely a band worth checking out, if you can stomach all the ‘boring UK’ associations.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

TONIGHT! The first RSL music showscase of the year.

Please join all of us at Ryan's Smashing Life tonight at Great Scott in Allston, for our first showcase of the year. We are featuring four great bands for a princely sum of $8.

Show your support for independent music! See you down there.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

PJ Harvey and John Parish's "A woman a man walked by"

Let me give some context for what I’m about to say about PJ Harvey and John Parish’s new album, “A Woman a Man Walked by”…

I am a PJ Harvey obsessive. Her last CD, ‘White Chalk’ easily made the top of my best albums list for 2007. It was the kind of record which made me want to go and spend a couple of thousand dollars on a piano (which I can’t play) and spend the next year trying to write even a single line a haunting as those she had put down. The list of great work from PJ Harvey doesn’t end there. Who can forget albums like “Is this desire?,” with its vicious industrial scrawl, or the exquisite “Songs from the City, Songs from the Sea.” Just in case I haven’t made my point, perhaps I can introduce my cats: tabby female “Polly Jean” and long haired ginger female “Harvey.” Yes, when I fixate…

So it’s a sad day when I come to “A Woman a Man Walked by” and have to admit that it has some serious problems. There are some dubious lyrical choices. The lyrics to “April” seem surprisingly prosaic, for example. “Pig Will Not” ends with Harvey shouting “I will not” again and again, and makes you wonder if she really has anything to say this time around.

There are still some great, moving, tracks, like “Passionless, Pointless” and “Leaving California,” but the overall album is very uneven. I’m a little more bitter at this because the single, “Black Hearted Love” is deceptively like an excellent track from “Songs from the City…,” so it raised my hopes that this might be the best new release of the year from an established act. That accolade still goes to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs right now (perhaps until Maximo Park next month?). Meanwhile I’m sad to say Harvey needs to rethink things a little, if she’s to produce the great new music I know she is still capable of.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Shameless Self-Promotion - "The Spire" by my band, Wring.

I simple can't resist telling you about a big development in my own musical life this week, after months of writing about other people's CDs. My band, Wring, has just released our first EP, "The Spire." You can get the EP, FREE, through our website,

"The Spire" is a little over fifteen minutes of music that I've been working on with my friend Art Baron for more than a year. I've also had help from good friends, and I want to acknowledge their great work: Thank you Stephanie Tyburski, Kevin Herlin, and Josh Olivier Mason. I also want to thank Jill for all her work on the website build and photography. Thanks too go to Colin Sapp for mastering the EP.

I'll leave the reviews to you, while I get started on the next one...

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Tom Thumb and Leonard Mynx at TTs, Monday!

It’s a Sunday, and I know how you feel. But tomorrow doesn’t need to be just the beginning of another grey week working in the city, because you can take my advice and head out to TT the Bear’s Place for a night of really great (not to mention cheap) entertainment from none other than Tom Thumb (who produced one of RSL's top albums of 2008!), along with a rising star who has traveled all the way from Oregon just for you: Leonard Mynx.

Tom Thumb should need no introduction at this point – he’s simply one of the best to come from Boston in the last couple of years, and his folk tracks are a mix of euphoric and poignant at one and the same time.

Mynx has a little darker tone, brooding on tracks like “Valley of Sickness and Death” and “Mary.” He sings elegant and beautiful music which can carry you with densely woven lines like “In the grave yard, below the Ferris wheel/ The stranger takes his pose/ Out across the barren field/ Mary gave a rose to a ghost.”

This show will definitely be worth your time tomorrow night – don’t miss out on either of these great folk artists.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Super Furry Animal's "Dark Days, Light Years"

A little while ago I wrote about the Fleet Foxes, and I had some problems with their generally lovely sound. It was too close to the sources it was taken from, so you wondered, despite its beauty, why you shouldn’t just listen to the originals. Now I’m going to put my head on the block again, and argue that another album that is at least as beautiful, and is borne of some old music too, is worth treating in quite a different way.

The Super Furry Animals’ “Dark Days, Light Years” comes from a really idiosyncratic musical world. I have been a fan of this band for more than ten years, and I’ve seen them produce folk, punk, massive prog rock and hard electronica. This new album, as much of any of its eight predecessors (! – yes, a band you’ve been missing out on!), gives you a strange sensation from the beginning. It makes you feel like you can hear where it came from – perhaps 70s disco at times, or 80s hair metal, or psychedelia - but you can’t for the life of you get back there. It’s a crazed concoction all their own.

SFA are a band who play complex, moving music while holding the slightest of wry smiles as they do it. My brother-in-law listened to the opening track (“Crazy Naked Girls”) with me recently, and seemed slightly irritated by that smile. He felt the outlandish humor of it was contrived, because the huge shredding guitar solos that run through it were really compelling, but SFA were too cool to admit it.

Perhaps that’s true, but I think it’s fair to say that SFA never smirk at us as they play. The humor is offset by the beauty of the harmonies on a track like “Moped Eyed,” or the swirling eight-minute build of tracks like “Cardiff in the Sun,” which is too euphoric to be just a joke. They are serious about music, but they know that without the humor, they would quickly become way too serious to be digestible by the rest of us.

Let me say that “Dark Day, Light Years” is certainly not SFA’s best. That would have to go to either “Guerilla” (1999) or “Phantom Power” (2003). But there is no average work from this band, just as there is no average sound from any album they make.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Kristoffer Ragnstam's "Wrong Side of the Room"

Lots of reviews for Swedish song-writer Kristoffer Ragnstam seem to feel he can be compared to Beck. It’s true that he seems to have some of the eclectic tastes which has made Beck such a staple on the American music scene, but perhaps it’s unfair to look so far afield for influences.

There have been other important bands which suggest Sweden has a thriving music scene on its own terms. The Wannadies, for one, had some great (though more angry) guitar-pop in the 90s which Ragnstam at times seems to echo. Then there was American’s brief affair with The Hives. Though past their best now, they have done some great punk-pop music over the years. The question is then, will Kristoffer Ragnstam take up the mantel for the Swedish music scene?

It certainly looks like it. Ragnstam’s latest record, “Wrong Side of the Room,” is catchy and energizing in turns. Mixed by renowned Blur, Radiohead and Supergrass engineer, Chris Brown, it manages to be both polished and edgy.

His lyrics fit this model too. The song “2008,” for example, is a great mix of the humorous and poignant. The track begins with the lines “Nothing bores me more than an overrated poet/ with an acoustic guitar, and way too much to say.” As you begin to smile, he turns to sing “Nothing makes me feel more lonely/ than when I’m all alone, with you honey,” and you are suddenly in a quite different place.

Ragnstam has already had some success, touring in support of Debby Harry in 2007. With this new record, it looks like that was just the beginning, and Ragnstam will now make another assault on American shores, we hope even bigger, and more sustained, than his predecessors.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

REVIEW: Ghost of the Russian Empire's "The Mammoth"

No-one ever said I was timely in my reviews. Austin Texas’s Ghost of the Russian Empire released their “The Mammoth” album last year, and it fell through the cracks for me. So this review is an apology, to Ghost, for my (quite literal) ignorance.

“The Mammoth” is an album shrouded in mystery. Ghost use so much reverb on most of their tracks that everything has a cloudy, lost feel to it. Vocals, in particular, drift past you incomprehensibly, swathed in ringing echoes of themselves. This is compounded with the dearth of information on the band (their ‘website’ is just a picture of the album cover – a cleverly engineered mystique?), and you start to wonder if Ghost are obscure, or obscured.

My comments may make it sound like “The Mammoth” is one big studio mishap, but here I feel sure Ghost are entirely in control of their direction. They claim a deep affiliation with Radiohead, but I don’t see it. Nonetheless, their album has some of the deep warmth of BRMC’s “Take them on, On Your Own,” some of the swagger, in songs like the excellent “Bleeding Machines,” of Kasabian’s eponymous first album (particularly tracks like “Reason is Treason”) – rolling bass is the only element you can hang onto while the song wheels around you.

So I highly recommend Ghost of the Russian Empire. They play dark music you can sink into, and sink your teeth into.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Duke Spirit live at FELT

Tonight I pull myself away from a whirling first few days with my newborn child, and go into Boston to see the excellent Duke spirit. We fight our way to FELT through the blustery rain, and weave through unmarked doors and up dark stairwells to find the small room in which they will play. This maze like course makes the whole event feel like admission to something cosseted and secretive.

(The Duke Spirit at another (bigger) venue)

The set up is so small that after a few minutes shaking the rain off our coats and getting drinks, the band simply walk up right past us, from the back of the room, and pick up their instruments. This is a very cool band with an image to uphold, and tonight we get to feel, in this cloistered space, like we’re really part of their scene. Singer Liela Moss tells us that her dad used to live in Boston, presumably in the hopes that this will make the band seem more at home here. She need not worry, though nothing about the Duke Spirit seems to fit Boston, or even America (at one point she says, with some embarrassment, “Oh, I sounded a bit American then, didn’t I”). Instead, the crowd comes to the band – we are transported to some pub in Camden, North London, to hear the energy of the Duke Spirit playing on their home ground. It’s a rare chance to let a band show us where they are really coming from.

(Moss gives it her all, on their last tour)

Moss seems to exude so much calm confidence, and her voice, which sounds like it might break at any moment (but never does), is compelling. The rest of the band are no less able to project their control over the room, as they lead us through lots of tracks from last years “Neptune,” some B-Sides, and a couple of new tracks. I’ve missed the chance to see the band in the past, but after tonight I’m glad I got the chance to see them first in such an intimate setting, before their future success means they will play more distant shows.

Check out “Neptune” and feel the Duke Spirit’s great soul-pop music, so you’re ready for the next time they grace us with their presence.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Interview: Bell X1

Since their last full album, Flock, came out back in 2005 in their home of Ireland, Bell X1 have been through a blur of touring, line-up changes, big performances on shows like Letterman, the occasional tour-bus fire shenanigans, and – happily for the rest of us – some new recording.

The result of all this is “Blue Lights on the Runway,” an album which, when I caught Bell X1 singer Paul Noonan while in LA recently, I discovered is born of draughty old Irish castles and Eastern European getaways. It is an album that should justifiably draw Bell X1 a whole new audience of devotees. Tracks like “The Great Defector” are fun and approachable, and others, like closing song “The Curtains are Twitchin’” show Bell X1 are worthy competitors to (though also comrades of) bands like The Frames.

I began my interview with a question for the engineer in me…

Nick: I wanted to start by asking about recording the new album, [“Blue lights on the runway.”]. How much involvement do you have in the recording process? Are you really hands on with that stuff?

PAUL: I think we’d be pretty hands on at this stage. This is the first album that is ‘our record’ – we fully own it – and we’ve got lots of studio gear that we’ve amassed over the years, and we tend to just find a nice space to put it up in. We’ve done the last two records that way.

Nick: So effectively you’ve produced the album yourself?

PAUL: Yes, well our good friend Bill Hayes has been involved in the last two records. I wouldn’t be too au fait with the technical aspects, but Dave [Geraghty] is good at that.

Nick: You recorded in Dublin, yes?

PAUL: Well, we found a castle in the middle of Ireland. It had these great big drafty rooms with high ceilings – really for lords and ladies. There’s all this really characterful old stately homes that are very cold, but have great acoustics.

Nick: Was this album recorded all in one place?

PAUL: Yes. We try to keep going until we have to stop, so we did maybe a month of recording in the house and then, between all the bouts of touring we did last year, we’d take some time and maybe use people’s houses to finish things up.

Nick: It seems like it’s becoming more and more rare these days to record everything in one place.

PAUL: That seems to be the way things are going as the recording process has evolved.

Nick: Do you think it affects the project a lot, whether you record in one place or many?

PAUL: Yes, I think often you can overwork things as a result of meddling, as opposed to the recording needing that work. We did a session the other day with Steve Lilywhite in New York, and he was very much of the opinion that you should come into a proper studio, having rehearsed a shit-load, and having a pretty good idea of where you’re going. He put forward the somewhat controversial hypothesis that Sergeant Pepper… being the first high profile band who really didn’t know what they were going to do until they got in the studio, and then they used the studio as an instrument… that Sergeant Pepper killed music, which I think is being willfully controversial…

Nick: That is a pretty extreme perspective!

PAUL: Yeah, you can be wonderfully creative by looking at it that way too.

Nick: One track I really liked was “The Great defector” - it seems to me to have a lot of Talking Heads in it? Are they a big influence of yours?

PAUL: Yes, they would be. We may have gone a bit far with that one! But yes, when I first saw the video to Road to Nowhere, as a young kid, the physical comedy, as well as the visual aspect, appeals to people of a really young age. I suppose only in the last few years have I gone back and listened to their earlier records and loved them.

Nick: So you’d say they were a major influence then?

PAUL: They have been. I remember when we were making our second record [Music in Mouth] in 2002 in Chiswick, London, and we’d go back from the studio to our flat each night and one of the guys would put on their album “Fear of Music,” which I had never heard, and was a really joyous thing to hear when you’re in the throws of a creative process. It was a real inspiration.

Nick: Yes, there’s that great track – if I recall correctly – “American Guitars” or “Electric Guitars”…

PAUL: Yes, “Electric Guitars” is a great one.

Nick: So, given this big influence from an American Band, would you say you would have more roots in Irish or American music?

PAUL: Well, I don’t really think of us as an Irish band, whatever that means…

Nick: I mean, is there a big difference between music from the two places still, do you think?

PAUL: Yeah, Ireland has a bunch of very strong singer-songwriters, because the oral tradition in Ireland gives it that strength. You grow up [in Ireland] in a culture of storytelling, and playfulness with language, and I think that makes a big difference to the music scene. But I don’t think of us as particularly from that world, although being Irish does have a big influence on my writing.

Nick: The drums parts and synths in songs like “How your heart is wired” have some 80s overtones.

PAUL: We’re not exactly re-inventing the wheel with that, but we did have a lot of fun playing with synths and drum loops. I suppose I wanted to take tracks that we would have written in a more tradition way – on acoustic guitar or on piano – say Dave and I, at each other’s houses, and then take those songs and dress them in beats, etc. so they’d sound a little more fresh, but not change the backbone of the song.

Nick: So do you think that’s coming out of some older musical interests, or is it resurgent right now in general?

PAUL: I think it comes out of an appreciation for older bands. We are big fans of Depeche Mode, and we learnt a couple of their songs to play acoustically, and we discovered that their was great writing there – songs that would stand up with a single voice and acoustic guitar. We really like New Order as well, on the strength of their songs.

Nick: Could you talk a little bit about your creative process, since you seem to have so many roles in the band! How do things usually get started?

PAUL: There’s no real formula for it. In the past when we’ve landed on something that works and then tried it again, it doesn’t, which I suppose is one of the beauties of music. This time around I spent some time alone in Eastern Europe writing, and learning the more computer based ways of producing songs, so a lot of the initial writing was done like that. With the last record we were in a position to start songs with the four us [together], from scratch, but this time the songs were pretty well formed before we all got together.

Nick: So the Eastern European trip you did, was that specifically to write, or were you there for other reasons?

PAUL: It was just to get and away and write. In Dublin there are too many distractions!

Nick: I understand you still do the drumming when you’re in the studio – is that right?

PAUL: This is actually the first one I haven’t done. Tim O’Donovan, who’s been playing with us live for year did them this time.

Nick: So does that imply your moving to ‘fronting’ the band more? How does it feel when you go back to that instrument [the drums]?

PAUL: I really enjoy it. I miss it when I don’t do it. I try to get out once or twice a year and tour as a drummer with other bands. But we don’t really have that sharply defined roles within Bell X1 – we move from instrument to instrument. I enjoy not playing drums while recording all the time. I enjoy the freedom of being able to sing properly. I don’t see that as a new role for me really. Bringing Tim in to play drums gave us an injection of his energy and his feel for things. It’s quite a rhythmically driven record and we talked a lot about that, and he [Tim] has his own style which was a great thing to capture.

Nick: You’ve toured with The Frames in the past. I wondered what your thoughts were about the effect of the popularity of The Swell Season, and the film Once, on the Irish music scene? Is the scene really thriving right now?

PAUL: I don’t really know. I think for a long time the term Dublin band was a derogatory one, associated with a sort of blusterous pub-rock. I don’t think that’s any longer the case – that stereotype doesn’t ring true. I mean, there’s great electronic music in Dublin, there’s good, straight ahead three piece rock bands, there’s even some good hip-hop. It is pretty diverse. The singer-songwriter scene is still very strong, and some of that is the result of once. Glen [Hansard] is such an established singer-songwriter, and he’s connected to so many different eras of the singer-songwriter. That fact that he’s achieved this recognition, it pulls everybody up. It re-enforces the idea of quality song-writing from Ireland.

Nick: Thanks for you time, and good luck with the tour. I’m hoping to be at the Boston show myself.

PAUL: I’m sure it will be a messy affair, but we’ll try to keep order!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Raveonettes and Nickel Eye at Paradise.

Just before this gig started, I passed distinctively chiseled Strokes’ bass player, and front man of Nickel Eye, Nikolai Fraiture, coming out of the bathroom at the Paradise. Just a little star-struck, I mumbled “have a good show” to him, and he thanked me casually, before disappearing backstage.

I really meant it too. But just a few minutes later, as Nickel Eye ran through some of the songs they have been playing around the country from their upcoming first album, “The Time of the Assassins,” I had changed my tune completely. By that point I had stood listening to them wander through track after track, looking, frankly, like they might fall asleep on stage. This is not a criticism of their music particularly (although I wasn’t taken with it – it was weak and generally lacking in drive), but of their incredible complacency. I have rarely seen a band apparently less interested in an audience’s opinion of them. I suppose that’s what they call ‘cool’ in musical circles. Nikolai sang “Don’t let them get you down,” and I suppose I am now the object of his statement. So be it – the band can’t be given a free pass to ‘phone it in,’ on the basis of the momentum they have gathered from Nikolai‘s past life.

The Raveonettes, who followed them, are cool in quite different terms. Their style, melding 50s harmonies and guitar drenched in spring reverb with massive bass and screaming noise-core distortion is still fresh and engaging, even after several years at what many critics label the cutting-edge. A friend who came to the show with me argued afterwards that they are not so new as they might want us to believe – that bands like Suicide have been over this ground before.

Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps this incarnation of ‘cool’ has overcome my judgment. I could tell they wanted to keep up appearances for the crowd when singer Sharin Foo broke at our applause, from her sultry passivity, into a smile. She looked like she had given something away – a secret that, perhaps she feared would damage their dark image. A secret that they really do care what we think, and that they need us.

How ‘uncool,’ and how endearing.

Ghosty's "Answers"

Kansas’s Ghosty are an easy band to write about, because they have roots in so many different, great bands of the last 15 years. They are like a super-group founded by members from four or five seminal indie acts. There is some Elliot Smith in the vocals, some early Black Crowes in the guitar, some Pavement (circa “Wowee Zowee”) in the bass, some National in the drums and keys. What brings these bands together is the mellow drift of their melodies, and the soft warmth of their tone. Ghosty uses this combination of elements to write calming songs that run over you like water.

“Answers” is undoubtedly a very successful album because their quiet confidence shows they achieved exactly what they intended to with this production. Is there a down side? Only that soft waves of sound can lull you into a state where the more complex lyrical or even melodic moves, which the album sometimes makes, are lost as you slip into lethargy.

What you loose from this kind of problem is not something you will notice though. To drift your way though beautiful music, sometimes unconscious of its depth, is only really a loss to the band. “Answers” is like the flowers that seduced the Lotus Eaters – a sweet album from which it is hard to pull yourself away.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Tonight! Raveonettes at Paradise.

Tonight I'd like to recommend that you take a deep breath and step into the deep-freeze that our town has become, to go and see The Raveonettes, supported by Nickel Eye, at the Paradise. If anything could generate heat, it's Sune Rose Wagner's noise-core grind over Sharin Foo's soft, low vocals.

Nickel Eye, which is the band name used by Strokes bass player Nikolai Fraiture, are also generating a good deal of talk on the East-Coast scene. Amazingly, it looks right now like the gig is still not sold out. You should take this as a sign that you are being called to the venue, and join me down there.

A review to follow...

Saturday, January 10, 2009

REVIEW: TV on the Radio's "Dear Science"

A few years ago I saw TV on the Radio supporting Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and I really didn’t get it. Nothing seemed to gel for the band that day. All the strands that I can hear in their latest album, “Dear Science,” were there, but they remained disparate and seemed to struggle against one another. For one thing, they were playing support to a band I felt were the epitome of experimental, but controlled, guitar music, and somehow TV on the Radio were working against that control.

I suppose what I wanted out of the band was pop music (in its broadest sense) – that is, I wanted to hear hooks and melodies I could follow and reproduce in my mind. But, at least when I approached the band for the first time in a live setting, they just didn’t seem to cohere in that way. With “Dear Science,” that has all changed.

I don’t mean to suggest that I want straightforward music that is easy to digest, and I’m certainly not saying “Dear Science” is a ‘simple’ pop album. What it is, though, is an album which speaks to me (and hopefully to others) in a subtle but lucid language which can lead us carefully through intricacies with the band, rather than having us scratching our heads ‘on the outside’ of the album.

I have recently entered the fray regarding the Fleet Foxes, another band who have collected more accolades for their latest album than I have pipe dreams of super-stardom. Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, NME, The Guardian etc. etc. have all leaped to TV on the Radio’s cause. This degree of hysteria makes me nervous, and inherently resistant.

Unlike in the case of the Foxes though, I really think there is some justice in a system that gives institutions like NME such sway over all our opinions in this case. They are absolutely on the money when Louis Pattison says the album is one of the best of the last year. “Dear Science” is packed with beautiful moments, elegant harmonies over heavy synths, driving rhythms moving around jazz brass sections – the list goes on. From playing a cacophonous gig in Boston city center that I quickly dismissed, TV on the Radio now have my absolute attention.