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.