Tag Archives: Col Ainsley

LOOKBACKS – Album reviews – Cindytalk: ‘Wappinschaw’, 1994 (“one of 1994’s most intense, perverse and unusual lost albums”)

30 Aug

Cindytalk: 'Wappinschaw'

Cindytalk: ‘Wappinschaw’

For almost fourteen years now, Cindytalk have been forging a lonely path through the ever-changing styles of modern music. Despite the soft pink flush of their name, Cindytalk’s music has always been so out-there, so much a music of violent extremes, that they have (more or less by default – how much could you change when you touch both ends of the spectrum?) stayed the same – no bad thing – while refining their sound on each album.

Gordon Sharp, the mainstay of Cindytalk’s many line-ups, is perhaps best known as the voice of three haunting tracks on the first album by 4AD art-collective This Mortal Coil, which also spawned Elizabeth Fraser’s honey-drenched version of Tim Buckley’s Song To The Siren in 1983. Yet 4AD-ethereal was never really Sharp’s bag. Cindytalk operate in the same dark areas that Michael Gira and Swans did before they transformed into doom-laden acoustic hippies (no more titles like Raping A Slave, then, Michael? cheers, love!), or The Birthday Party before Nick Cave mellowed out into Satan’s crooner.

They’ve wilfully, awkwardly, pursued music of extremes. Their first album, ‘Camouflage Heart’, must rank somewhere alongside Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music’ for sheer unlistenable music for (dis)pleasure, that has to be owned simply to piss people off. And the mammoth ‘In This World’ was a double album of contradictions – one record of near-industrial rock with razor-sharp guitar sounds (varying between tooth- extraction by electric power drill or sheet-metal white noise), and one record of near-ambient instrumentals and songs, mostly played on very soft piano like Erik Satie on Mogadon.

But it’s been a long time since any new Cindytalk material; perhaps because of artistic reclusiveness, perhaps through being a true cult act. Having already had a protracted recording between 1990 and 1992, this album took a further two years to emerge on a record label in 1994. A lone concert aside, we’ve heard nothing from them since (that’s what y-o-u think.. – ED.). Hence this five-years-after-the-event review: cults can always do with getting bigger while they wait for the resurrection.

So, ‘Wappinschaw’; one of 1994’s most intense, perverse and unusual lost albums…


 
It opens deceptively simply, with an a-capella reworking of Ewan MacColl’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, reflecting Gordon Sharp’s interest in folk idioms (especially his own native Scots). He’s singing solo, without echo or reverb, up close, right there in your darkened room. His voice – one of the most expressive at conveying rage, pain, fear – displays power here yet, somehow, also insecurity. A Song Of Changes is leaden-paced at first, but David Ros’ guitars are more blurry and hazed than previous industrial strength Cindytalk noise. Suddenly the guitars hit an almost bright riff around which Sharp fluctuates and soars. A song of changes, indeed – light is breaking into Cindytalk’s dark world: “Within the heart of everything, there is you…”


 
It doesn’t last, though. Return To Pain (hah!) lurches in on a mix of barely-scrubbed electric and slide guitars, creating an empty and menacing atmosphere as Sharp emotes through wordless high vocals. It’s nightmare swamp music, midnight in the Mississippi plains accompanied by the scariest of companions, before the tension explodes into a barrage of noise. Drums, shotgun guitars, and Sharp wailing that “everybody is Christ.” Y-e-e-es; whatever you say, Gordon.


 
Whichever expectations are set for them, Cindytalk trump them on this record. Wheesht is introduced by a tape of Alisdair Gray reading an extract from his mammoth Scottish psycho-epic ‘Lanark’: a story of a young boy dreaming about what lies beyond the clouds. Recorded over the sound of a ticking clock and a ghostly musical box, this exercise in unsettling atmospherics chills the spine and sets us up for Wheesht itself: a brutally short, non- musical violent collage of bass drones, sonic interferences, sampled voices, blood-curdling screams and other genuinely unnerving sounds.


 
To the looping, echoed scrapings of a low-tuned violin, Snowkiss restores some sense of calm with more of Cindytalk’s music for winter nights – Gordon’s vocals imploding out of their rage into delicate lines and wordless harmonies sung over the gentlest of chiming, raindrop pianos. The lyrics of Disappear evoke a painfully trapped life: “You’re in heaven now, / Inside your head. / No thoughts of flight, / Your wings are clipped…”, while a strongly martial beat provides the tracks only propulsion as guitars and sampled interference compete with each other in a swirling eddy of sound. The lively, echoing trumpet on Traumlose Nacht, mingled with delicate piano and evocative waves of rolling drums, provide some relief and a different sonic vocabulary – it sounds like incidental music for the dark magic and oppressive heat of ‘Angel Heart’.


 
The final track, Hush, starts as an guitar-and-solo-vocal acoustic lament (back to the folk singing of the opening track) but then gives way to influential voices from the heavens (including samples of Orson Welles and Joseph Beuys) before everything fades to leave a long passage of bagpipe music that is, after the tumult of Cindytalk in action, strangely beguiling and soothing… but wait. After a long pause, a final hidden track, Muster. An incendiary, veritably Napalm-Death’s- worth battery of hideous thrash-noise, over which Sharp’s passionate ragged voice issues forth evocations to notable spirits: “The Wappinschaw is an invocation of the spirits of Shiva: Rise, William Wallace, rise! Rise, Arthur Rimbaud, rise!” He goes on to summon the spirits of Pasolini, Sitting Bull, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, amongst others. So unearthly does Sharp sound, so compelling, that I have no doubt that the spirits responded. Quite the most disturbing sound heard on CD for some time.


 
I wouldn’t like to hazard too close a guess at what kind of emotional traumas Gordon Sharp purges from himself to make this music; all razor blades, blizzards and crow feathers. It’s enough to say that, after fourteen years on the extremes, Cindytalk demand your rapt attention, your horrified fascination…

(review by Col Ainsley)

Cindytalk: ‘Wappinschaw’
Touched Recordings, TOUCH 1 (5 021958 432021)
CD-only album
Released: 1994

Get it from:
(2018 update) best obtained second-hand

Cindytalk online:
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Album reviews – Bill Nelson: ‘Atom Shop’ (“freefalling away with the breakbeat imprint stamped onto the songs”)

20 Sep
Bill Nelson: 'Atom Shop'

Bill Nelson: ‘Atom Shop’

Compare and contrast. A while ago, Bowie – in a last-ditch attempt to prove he’s still relevant, still the musical chameleon of old – clambered aboard the drum’n’bass gravy train. That music’s normally made by lone bedsit technoheads; Bowie tried to do it with a bloated old rock band. Oops. Still, being Bowie, he could always pick up the phone and request the services of Goldie or some other jungle luminary. The end result sounded clumsy and desperate and – pointedly – as if Bowie had no real interest in drum’n’bass, since he kept dragging the music back towards the ever-more-familiar Bowierock. Not good.

On the other hand… Bill Nelson, him from ’70s Bowie contemporaries Be Bop Deluxe (and a man who mostly holed up in an ambient hermitage in Wakefield during the ’80s and ’90s) has also discovered drum’n’bass. A year before Bowie, too, with 1996’s rattlin’ good ‘After The Satellite Sings’, which sounded – unlike Bowie’s studied “so-how-do-I-do-jungle?” approach – like it had been a revelation and release to him, and without surrendering his own musical personality. Call me romantic, but I could imagine the middle-aged Nelson huddled over his radio each evening, tuning through the FM jungle pirate stations, listening in awe to the complex rhythms and then rushing to his music room to apply what he heard.

‘…Satellite…’ was a suave salvo of smartly retrofitted ’50s-accented art-pop with a bloodstream of “quintessentially English” drum’n’bass, if you can imagine such a thing – Nelson’s laid-back vocals (like a cross between David Sylvian and Cabaret Voltaire’s Stephen Mallinder) topping a very compacted sound, curiously lacking bass oomph but loaded with frenetic drum patterns, beatbox-assaulting jungle snares, burbling electronics and witty speech samples, including someone sounding suspiciously like Maggie Thatcher exclaiming “absolutely dazzled!” over the rush of beats. It was cheeky, it was damn cool, and it had a heart beating under its sharp starched creases.

‘Atom Shop’ is the follow-up; a boxload of demos that failed to get enough funding for the full studio treatment. All the better, ‘cos we know that that way lies ‘Earthling’, Bowie lumbering into a clumsy three-point turn and spilling his load. This album’s rougher edges help – not enough to convert a hardcore junglist, but evading the slickness of most crossover efforts. And it continues ‘…Satellite…’s so-quaint-it’s-cool eccentricity, from Nelson’s memories of being in hock to American glamour during his ’50s childhood and art-college ’60s in Yorkshire.

Pulp fiction, Beat writers, cartoons, natty bebop and cars with silver fins are all part of Atom Shop’s dream fabric. It kicks off with Wild & Dizzy’s swirl of trumpet mixups, dry drum’n’bass pulse, chill synths and blue guitar, peppered with ’50s dude voices. And one of the other songs is called Viva Le Voom-Voom, baby. There’s a lot of fanboy energy here: he’s knocking on 50, but Bill Nelson still sounds naïve and sparkling with enthusiasm, bless the old goat.


 
Though one thing you notice pretty fast is that ‘Atom Shop’ doesn’t have the hurtling clubby drive of ‘After the Satellite Sings’. Train With Fins looks back towards the more drum’n’bassed ‘…Satellite…’ songs like Flipside – fast and clattering upfront snare drum patterns, with a techno twang and banks of horn-like guitars calling up the ghosts of Stax – but, though speedy, it never breaks much of a sweat. Which is also true of Rocket Ship’s sliding jazz/d’n’b snake rattle and Trevor Horn stabs, or Popsicle Head Trip’s Ferry smooch and tight heavy-metal riffs – all mingling through the drum’n’bass dryness, but the beats ain’t so obvious as they could’ve been.


 
Magic Radio has a light d’n’b push to it, but ends up like The Orb doing Somewhere Over The Rainbow. ‘Atom Shop’ sounds more touched deeply in passing by drum’n’bass, rather than grabbed by it; as if it’s freefalling away with the breakbeat imprint stamped onto the songs, a teacher’s kiss. Here you’ll more often feel the pathways of d’n’b rather than the punch; the points where space has been prepared, the dynamics of the beat, waiting for the kick that never quite comes.

Oddly, though, ‘Atom Shop’s a much blacker album than its predecessor, even if it does sound less like a session on Massive FM. ‘…Satellite…’s most awkward point – the strafing, Fripp-like guitar solos – have been phased out for a bluesier approach. Nelson’s guitar is busy everywhere, and if there’s some of B.B.D.’s fluid finickiness to it, he can also sound like a sample-era John Lee Hooker, or the subtler detailing Hendrix of Little Wing and Up From The Sky. All this is dovetailed into the minimal trip-hop feel taken to the top of the charts by Garbage, Sneaker Pimps et al (especially for the more ominous Girlfriend With Miracles), but Nelson’s got a more developed musical sense.


 
So everywhere you look, there are things going on: elements of electronica, samples and live instruments in a complex, but never fussy or muso, interweaving. Dobros and slides are all over Pointing At The Moon’s sleepiness, little bits of rural blues and gospel organs jostle into the arrangements; and so do probably all the “s”s in Mississippi too, if you can find ’em. And jazz dances wherever there’s room; trippy Dizzy Gillespie trumpet cascades, cheeky clarinets, even a bit of scat. Bill Nelson’s found, and gone into, the future we’re starting to guess at from our Portishead records and big-beat singles. A glittering, malleable, disorienting wonderland built out of chewed-up scraps of our past and ghosts in the record players. Something which he pins down in the sizzling hip-hop/jazz hybrid of Spinning Dizzy On the Dial when he sings “I’ve seen the luminous stuff of dreams, / I know what’s going down… Awake to all eternity / with the jazziest ghosts in town.”


 
It’s about a sensibility, I guess, a feeling. Which leaves us with the preoccupations of Nelson’s sighed, sometimes stoned vocals through an album of songs that are mostly poised in dreaminess. ‘…Satellite…’ celebrated the liberation Nelson’s kinetic d’n’b exploits offered him, poked fun at those who thought he might be a little old to join the jungle massive (“I had my sonic youth / When you were lost in ether… / I’ve got nothing to say, and I’m saying it. / Yeah, that’s the stuff for me.”) and had an undercurrent of suspicion at the American dream (“Whither thou goest, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”). But ‘Atom Shop’s more content to bask in sighs about “the way things swing”, “moving stars spun from mirror ball”, “Chet Baker on the lo-hi-fi”, trippy kittens, glamour girls from Mars, and Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. Perhaps he made his point the first time around.


 
Rest assured that it stays on the right side of Austin Powers, thanks to things like the Beat-rapping on Billy Infinity, the shuffling shoe-drag balladry and springy guitars of She Gave Me Memory, and the way in which My World Spins cooks everything together best – gospel emphasis, lucid little guitar and electric piano strums, pitter-pat drum’n’bass velocity, a Cars-style creaky hipness and Nelson’s determination to keep his head clear: “now everybody’s got their information / but none of it matches mine. / Saints preserve my reputation and keep my thoughts sublime.” The sense of a mind open to new sounds and influences pervades. Before the closing Jetsons-style supermarket jingle, Nelson’s declared himself to be “sending signals and leaving clues / from the hymns of history to the far-future blues.”


 
And aside from the excitement for the listener, part of the greatness of Nelson’s current trajectory is hearing a rejuvenated art-rocker enjoying exploring startlingly new musical forms and weaving them into his history. Doing it for himself, without a style guru or scenester shoving a batch of 12-inch white labels into his hands, saying “Sample some breaks from this – it’s what the kids are into.” Keep flicking through those FM stations, Mr Nelson…

(review by Col Ainsley)

Bill Nelson: ‘Atom Shop’
Discipline Global Mobile, DGM 9806 (633367980625)
CD-only album
Released: 15th September 1998

Get it from:
Best obtained second-hand.

Bill Nelson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM

Maxi-single reviews – Lo Fidelity Allstars: ‘Vision Incision’ (“promises to blow our minds wide open, but falls well short of the promise”)

26 Mar

Lo Fidelity Allstars: 'Vision Incision' maxi-single

Lo Fidelity Allstars: ‘Vision Incision’ maxi-single

I had this lot down all wrong at first, I admit it. From the bragging “we’re the greatest” interviews, and the “dance music with real instruments” tag, even the look of the group, I had them down as (god forbid) the new baggy. I was fully prepared to go out and shoot them so I didn’t have to live through the horror that was baggy yet again. But a couple of odd tracks here and there have persuaded me to save my bullets… for now.

Sure, there’s a “real band” sound at the heart of the Lo Fidelity Allstars, but they can manage to make their take on turn‑of‑the‑millennium genre‑defying dance culture a gloriously uplifting thing. Their baggy forerunners (Happy Mondays, Stone Roses) always sounded like they were prevented from gliding to a higher musical plane by having their feet firmly stuck in the field of mud labelled “indie”. The Lo Fi’s, firmly centred on the sampler and decks, don’t have the same problem as they reel off ribbons and streams of sound, rather than chug doggedly away like an old pro dealing with a new fad. But…


 
Oh, the senseless waste. Vision Incision promises to blow our minds wide open, but falls well short of the promise. Good start, mind. Smooth beats, hedonistic keyboard riff, an infectious soul-diva backing hook, and the matter of the live band sound becomes irrelevant as the track lifts and soars smoothly like the most uplifting house or techno, boasting “As we travel at magnificent speeds around the universe…” At which point the Lo-Fi-s prime weak spot is revealed: Dave The Wrekked Train’s bland Speak’n’Spell vocals. Mashing up randomised texts, as he does on other Lo-Fi-s sonic collisions, they work fine. Faced with actual poetry, they creak like a ground axle. Please, if this is the way he carries on all the time, sack him. He has delusions of being a more hip Mark E. Smith, but ends up just sounding like a London cabbie – a monotone mumble grating over the divine music and pointing up the dreadful rhymes in some of his lyrics.

Perhaps he reckons he’s aiming at the street-level psychedelic lyricism of hip-hoppers like the Wu-Tang Clan: the thing is, those guys sound like they believe the weed-fuelled surreal-o-vision they’re raving about. Dave just sounds embarrassed, as if he’d rather have stayed in his siding and chatted to Thomas The Tank Engine this time around. Consequently, I can’t decide whether this is a successor to Orbital’s Chime for the genre‑busting, cross‑pollinating late ’90s dance scene, or just OMD meeting The Orb in a spot of megalomaniac galactic synthpop. Or, alternatively, the KLF doing Spinal Tap.


 
The remix is referred to as a “12” mix” ‑ how bloody Eighties. I suspect that, in homage to their record label, this is the Lo‑Fi-s’ attempt at the Big Beat remix. The Late Train has mutated (oh god!) into the slower‑talking brother of The Shamen’s Mr C. for the first part of this extended work‑out. Wisely, they quickly dispense of his services and crank up the heavy beats to provide a real tour de force instrumental for the band. Proving that if you like your beats big and bouncy, then this dissipated bunch can turn their devious minds to that too. The Midfield General Shorter mix is the sparse techno‑electronica version. A mechanistic, simple beat, overlaid by electronic squelches and interferences, as the original track is ripped to shreds and rebuilt, as elements and sequences of the original drift in and out of the mix. Oh, and Train-In-Vain is just a distant, distorted presence, way back in the ether. Wise move, guys.


 
By this stage, frankly, it’s difficult to tell whether Gringo’s Return To Punk Paste is, in fact, a new track, or yet another radical remix of the original. What it does prove, yet again, is that the Lo‑Fi-s can also turn their hands (deep breath) to a ’90s version of the sounds of early ’80s rap and electro. Skeletal beats and distorted, squelching basslines set the parameters for that unmistakeable sound, aided by some nifty no‑nonsense American speech samples.


 
Cunning remixes or no, even if feted as the best new band in Britain by ‘Melody Maker’ and handed The Future on a giant silver platter to play with, the Lo Fi’s are still going to bellyflop if they keep expecting that stuff like Vision Incision’s going to justify that reputation. It’s not that they’re talentless rip-off merchants. On the contrary, their sampledelic experimentation – when they’ve taken all the sounds of the world, scrunched them up and run with them – is at least as heart-jumpingly astounding as any other visionary pop cut-ups around, if not more so. Hype or no hype, they can bring the noise with a vengeance. This is a real Quality Street of a band – whatever your favourite tribe in the current cross‑cultural collision, there’s music for you here. And if this is the sort of open‑minded group that all the mess of sounds in the ’90s can produce, then the future is wearing some very cool shades.

But compared to their own mighty One Man’s Fear (the world being slowly and gloriously wrenched to sticky bits by Jim Morrison’s psychotic baby grandchild), this ain’t so much a vision incision as a mere blink. Someone had their eye on nothing more noble than a chart placing when they knocked this lot together. Just cut it out, OK? Show me stars, not hot gas.

(review by Col Ainsley)

Lo Fidelity Allstars: ‘Vision Incision’
Skint Records, SKINT 33CD (5025425503320)
CD/cassette/7- & 12-inch maxi single
Released: 23rd March 1998

Get it from:
(2018 update) best obtained second-hand.

Lo Fidelity Allstars online:
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Album reviews – Labradford: ‘Mi Media Naranja’ (“the sound of dust with blues”)

22 Nov

Labradford: 'Mi Media Naranja'

Labradford: ‘Mi Media Naranja’

Last year’s self-titled, scheme-solidifying Labradford album saw the Virginian post-rock doyens – as I put it at the time, playing “perfect pop for Prozac people” via “desert guitars drifting into the night.” As I also said, we seemed all set for a slide into Death Valley, Oops. Except we didn’t end up there after all.

Somewhere on the road along the way, Labradford seem to have pulled in at this little deserted Tex-Mex place called ‘Mi Media Naranja’, where they’ve ambled into the cobwebbed bar, dusted off some country band’s abandoned instruments and decided to record another album, just so that the year’s release schedules won’t forget them in a hurry. And suddenly classic rock seems to be on the agenda. Tunes are heard. Mark Nelson’s picked up a slide guitar, Carter Brown adds electric pianos to his armoury, two string players are brought in. To keep up that arty enigmatic quality, songs are given one- or two-letter titles (a strategy only topped by The Aphex Twin’s use of calx symbols a few years ago) to remove any hint of presupposition on our part. And we’re rolling.


 
And… it’s not the Allman Brothers (well, do surprise me). But this time, although the funereal pace remains a Labradford constant, the music mostly sounds like Ennio Morricone revamping Pink Floyd’s ‘Obscured By Clouds’, under Michael Nyman’s instructions. S being the perfect example – melancholy Pacific twang-guitar, chilly organ, sobre violas in a Rachel’s manner, and the definitive Labradford touch of a coldly beautiful and crystalline short-wave radio whine (off on the edge of hearing and pinking the edge of the ears, insinuating indifferent, mindless, slightly dysfunctional technology into the sound of the human players). Tinny-edged strings duet with a piquant, ever-so-slightly discoordinated accordion, EQ-ed up for subtle discomfort.


 
If ‘Mi Media Naranja’ could be summed up in one phrase, it’d be “the sound of dust with blues”: inertia melding with the memory of sadness. Spiritualized might be a handy comparison. But then, so’s Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross – that same tragically sad yet detached Peter Green-style slide guitar shows up on G, as a milk-bottle jingle melds with tinkly Gameboy morse-code squirts, lonely and insulated footsteps scuff in the background, and a Spanish guitar plays like a mantric harp. Nelson’s voice (when it makes an appearance) sounds like it’s travelling through half a mile of cupboard fluff. C is more like Angelo Badalamenti under heavy sedation: an excursion of subterranean Rhodes piano, prayer-bell clinking, and papery flutter.


 
Compared to the unquiet dreamscapes of ‘Labradford’ , there’s something almost domestic about ‘Mi Media Naranja’: something like the drowse of an abandoned family home during a pollen-y summer. A tinny spinning-top rattle rolls hollowly through I’s midground above watery organ and tides of static, as narcotic sleigh bells nod against four-note guitar. There are distant kiddie voices and sterile, fragile electric strings on WR; and guitar dust-bunnies on V, set against the reverberant pulse of a metal bowl while Nelson whispers a trickle of unsurety through the comforting lap of sound. “Too many give… / These insights will see right through your plans. / At the mouth of the highway tunnel, the decision waits for your next command… / Secret candles still can burn: / is it deep enough? / did you make it deep enough?” In the near-hush, Brown’s piano sketches in what remains of the still air.



 
P finally closes the sojourn with a dose of Harold Budd meets Hank B. Marvin. Low, sweet Rhodes and three- note piano-note, sustained, furry, quivering organ drones in a shimmery haze, with the dislocated thrummmm of bass against the slow rise of a second organ. You start listening to the album in an abandoned bar. You end it back among the coma patients, in the suffocatingly pure-white sheets of a hospital bed.


 
Compared to the beautiful frozen grimness of ‘97’s eponymous album, Labradford’s work on ‘Mi Media Naranja’ is a pretty fuzzy, lazy business. But, after a while, it becomes something that makes just as much introverted emotional sense as its predecessor. With these two albums Labradford have floated forwards, pinned between miraculous, lucidly speechless visions… and being lost in the cradle of their own inner fog.

(review by Col Ainsley)

Labradford: ‘Mi Media Naranja’
Mute Liberation Technologies/Blast First Records, BFFP 144CD (5 016027 611445)
CD/download album
Released: 19th November 1997

Get it from:
(2018 update) CD best obtained second-hand, or download from Bandcamp.

Labradford online:
Homepage MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

Album reviews – The Verve: ‘Urban Hymns’ (“one of the few times recently where rockers with an eye on the past have come up with its substance as well as its shape”)

7 Oct

The Verve: 'Urban Hymns'

The Verve: ‘Urban Hymns’

There’s classic and there’s Classic. I guess you could say that “classic” refers to whatever emerges from the past and underpins the future, something that becomes part of the way things are done, things are thought. Something that is there, to be tapped into. Archetypes.

On the other hand, there’s “Classic”. A sort of snob’s trademark; a lovingly-restored, polished artifact from the past, like fleets of Model T Fords puttering around a private racetrack in 1998. Something you can buy, like horse-brasses or fake-Tudor house frontage. Hired vintage suits.

That’s why it will always be utterly incomprehensible to me how The Verve are compared to Oasis; are hangers-on in that awful Weller/Ocean Colour Scene/Creation band circle of “friends of Oasis”. A scene where all inspiration has been submerged in encroaching conservatism; where authenticity is no more than off-the-peg habit; where you imagine that by thieving the possessions and the poses of the great, you can become great. A beggar’s court of stained carpets, grubby heirlooms… and “Classic” songwriting. You would’ve thought that by now The Verve would’ve wiped the sleep from their eyes, taken an incredulous look around themselves at that pack of plodding duffers, and buggered off out of there.

Look, with this mighty album, The Verve are well clear of that paltry, inflated “Noelrock” equation. The battle for greatest guitar rock album of ’97 was between Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ and ‘Urban Hymns’. While Radiohead’s more experimental approach has created an album for the exposed and overloaded pre-millennial soul, arguably this album is pure music for the timeless, stripped heart. Songs, surging choruses, swelling strings, drenched in emotion. Yes, it is a “classic rock” thing. Yes, the basic shapes are extremely familiar, even timeworn sometimes. Yes, guitars do swagger between romantic and pugnacious, and lads still sing out the untidy facets of their rough-diamond hearts. But even with all this, it’s still somehow an album of the moment.

And while I defy any intelligent person to listen to Don’t Look Back In Anger without bursting into derisive laughter, Richard Ashcroft and the rest of The Verve seem somehow able to plug directly into the genuine classic rock tradition. You know, that one which Noel Gallagher can only wear like a little boy swiping his parents’ clothes, waddling into the front room with sleeves flapping a foot below his hands and shoes dangling around his tiny feet – “Look at me! I’m a grown-up too!”

Enough of that. Leave it behind. The Verve have, whether they’ll acknowledge it or not. ‘Urban Hymns’ may ease its broad shoulders into certain well-known-and-namechecked spaces: The Rolling Stones, Lennon, Hendrix, The Doors, a hint of Pink Floyd in ’69 or ’71, The Stone Roses… But there’s more to this than the aspirations of a bunch of Wigan pub-rockers. A lot more.

Bitter Sweet Symphony, of course, everyone knows by now. But hold on, this is a piece of systems music if I’ve ever heard one. (Um, aren’t you supposed to be going on about Northern Soul like everybody else, Col? – ED.) The strings sequence slides in (courtesy of Andrew Loog Oldham’s orchestral version of the Stones’ The Last Time) complete with bells (bells! glorious!), the staccato drum pattern motors off… and, basically, that’s it. The structure builds subtly, but there’s no real bridge or chorus. Ashcroft leads the melody by weaving around and harmonising with the band’s hypnotic spatial groove. The video had the feel just right – put the track on headphones, follow the walking-pace rhythm, and you immediately Do The Ashcroft. Tunnel vision, walking straight ahead, oblivious. Magical.


 
Both here and throughout ‘Urban Hymns’, the crucial ingredient is in the detail. Behind the familiar riffage, behind Ashcroft’s raw and tender delivery, there stretches a vast depth of sound, like a field of stars seen from high above. And Nick McCabe lives in this space, manipulating a guitar like Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ paintbrush: moans, swooshes, calls, swathes of colour and musical dialogue. It’s easy to see why The Verve could not be such a magical band without him. Most lead guitarists stick to one spot, on stage or one record: but McCabe seems to be fucking everywhere, cut loose from gravity, from his body, from everything. It’s a bit “Floyd”, a bit “Jimi”, a bit space-rock, but it’s always intensely, dynamically involved; never adrift in a haze of selfish narcosis.


 
Space And Time, though, swaps the lush atmospherics for a more straightforwardly guitar-based sound with an anthemic chorus, but still parades Ashcroft’s insecurity like a beacon for those with similar feelings: “I just can’t make it alone.” Within weeks, then, this track will have established itself as a rallying call to legions of insecure fans. Just wait and see. And, yes, one could be cynical about such identification with mere pop songs, but how many artists wouldn’t sell their soul for such emotional power? Many bands have one such song (Sit Down, A Design For Life). The Verve have just written virtually a whole album of them.


 
Sonnet utilises, not for the only time on this album, a romantically lush, almost country sound. A simple electric rhythm guitar and tinkling piano accompany the verses, before the full Verve power blooms in the life-affirming chorus – “Yes, there’s love if you want it…”

The Drugs Don’t Work is the massive morning comedown after what seemed to be the best night of your life – chemically enhanced, of course – and you’ve realised that you can’t block everything out, no matter how hard you try. Beautiful strings, subtly countrified lead from McCabe, Ashcroft’s emotionally affecting vocal – this song is so finely constructed, with an ear for peaks and lows, that it already has the feel of a timeless standard that’s always existed within some heavenly rock canon. It also contains one of the most eloquent avowals of unstinting, devoted love that I’ve ever heard in my life – “If heaven falls, I’m coming too / Just like you said / ‘You leave my life, I’m better off dead.'” Make no mistake, this is one song that’s gonna feature in those 3-a.m.-highly-emotional-end-to-a-party situations for years to come.


 
But it’s not all dark nights of the soul. “Happiness, / more or less, / it’s just a change in me. / Something in my liberty… / But I’m a lucky man…” – Lucky Man is a song of hope and thanks for the crowd to sing, too. Another classic melody, performed by this oddly timeless band – another strings-laden track where The Verve perform with subtle, understated grace. Unlike so many other bands who witlessly drag in a string section to add a touch of authenticity, The Verve understand the dynamics of strings and orchestra and throughout the album they perfectly complement the sound rather than compete with it.


 
Well, look, if this is getting too romantic, lush and orchestral… the thumping intro to The Rolling People leads into a swaggering Doors-style guitars’n’rhythm assault. This song also allows greater opportunity for Nick McCabe to let fly on lead guitar, proving again that he’s as skilled in delicate atmospherics as well as able to play with great power. On Neon Wilderness (on which he takes the lead writing credit) he takes The Verve back to the ambient rock of ‘A Storm In Heaven’ as he builds stately shifting ice-floes of guitar submerged in the band’s watery echoes and Ashcroft’s vocals appear to free-associate in a waking dream.



 
The album’s only weak link is This Time, the only track that noticeably breaks the medium-slow tempo. It attempts an awkward mix of The Verve’s new melodicism with a “guitar-dance” feel (shuffling percussion, treated vocals, funky guitars, you know the score) but in contrast to the rest of the album’s majestic assurance it just sounds directionless, with Ashcroft’s most loose-limbed lyrics just filling up space. Better baggy, basically. It would have been a revelation in 1991; now, it just sounds like one of The Verve’s few concessions to their own nostalgia.


 
Come On, the final track, is the rawest we hear The Verve on ‘Urban Hymns’. Powerfully self-assured and confident, it is a barrage of full-on band attack, rock guitars leading the charge plus the return of the “Mad Richard” of the band’s fledgling years – holding forth, shouting, challenging (and frankly, probably talking bollocks) atop the sonic attack. Glorious it is too. “Come along with our sound / Let the spirit move you…” Indeed.


 
This is one of the few times recently where rockers with an eye on the past have come up with its substance as well as its shape. As Come On, and the album itself, spirals noisily towards its climax (there is one hidden track, a swelling soundscape of studio clatter, radio interference, feedback, a crying baby and a haunting deliquescent guitar line: as if The Verve have grabbed so much inspired sound from nature that it demands to be given birth to, song or no song) the scale and magnitude of what The Verve have achieved in the past thirteen tracks all gets a bit much for “Mad Richard” as he shouts out “Fuck you! This is a myth!” That’s what I heard, anyway.

I hope that’s what he says. It should be what he says. Against all odds, a mythical, legendary album.

(review by Col Ainsley)

The Verve: ‘Urban Hymns’
Virgin Records/Hut Recordings, CD HUT 45 (7 24384 49132 1)
CD/cassette album
Released: 29th September 1997

Get it from:
on general release.

The Verve online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Last FM

Album reviews – James: ‘Whiplash’ (“dabbles in new styles, mostly unsatisfactorily”)

27 Feb

James: 'Whiplash'

James: ‘Whiplash’

When a band have made it, are popular, and their songs are heard in every commercial outlet, a person is simply playing a game of pathetic one‑upmanship if they smugly proclaim: “Oh, I liked them when they were a cult band. They’ve gone all pop now!” These are very sad people.

Ahem. Now…

I liked James when they were a cult band. They’ve gone all pop now. Yes, I admit it. I am a sad person and I claim my five pounds.

In truth, I lost touch with James after ‘Gold Mother’, when they entered the pop stratosphere and those T‑shirts became ubiquitous. My attitude to Sit Down exemplifies my attitude to ‘Whiplash’. Sit Down started life as a strumalong of identification with those who felt alone or slightly dispossessed, insecure. It was re‑released as an epic soundtrack which seemed to command “You WILL Sit Down!!”. And whilst every baggy‑shirted indie kid and raver performed the increasingly meaningless charade of plonking their arses on the stage, that song (and James themselves) sounded, to these ears, like a New Age, slightly more subtle Simple Minds. When my mother chose Sit Down as her favourite song, opined that Tim Booth was “a nice young man” and started asking me which one in the band was “James”, my interest in the band as a pop entity virtually evaporated. (You none‑more‑punk, you! ‑ ED.)


 
‘Whiplash’ promises much. It is heralded as “a return to form”. For old James fans, this is a pronouncement we’ve heard before. But the opening track, Tomorrow, has the pulsing rhythm, the simplicity and directness, the expanding layers of sound that I so remember were classic James; and so it is better to forget, perhaps, that this song is about three years old and first appeared in embryonic form on ’94’s experimental excursion ‘Wah Wah’. Elsewhere, Lost A Friend features verses with a skeletal musical backing and Booth returning to hitting all those strange half‑note harmonies of old, before breaking into the obligatory big chorus. It’s still James’ version of their Big Music, but it no longer lumbers like an over‑produced fabrication as in recent years. Sadly, trite lyrics like “my TV’s telling me / that all of our money goes into the military” and “I see some soldiers with guns / they are killing for fun / they are killing to entertain me” do not raise my political consciousness one iota. May I call you Bono, Tim?


 
This album’s biggest problems come where the much‑vaunted contemporary feel exerts itself. There is always an awful doubt when a band returns from a long break saying that they’ve been listening to techno/trip‑hop/drum’n’bass/ambient (or whatever; delete as applicable), and the new masterpiece is produced under these influences. Eighty per cent of ‘Whiplash’ features these dabbles in new styles, mostly unsatisfactorily.

The album’s first single, She’s A Star, is the most startling and perhaps most successful, sounding like Suede-lite. But it lacks Brett Anderson’s detailing of urban degeneration, suburbia and glamorous smack habits. With Suede, She’s A Star would be blackly ironic ‑ she would be a lonely girl in a dead commuter belt, or a wasted junkie. But Tim means it ‑ she really is a “star”. That’s lovely for him and her (whoever she may be), but ultimately rather naive for us.


 
Go To The Bank is roughly the third song on the album that mentions TVs, so James have obviously spent their time away wisely. Seemingly a diatribe against the evils of money, the lyrics leave a bad taste in the mouth with the repeated line “it all belongs to Caesar…” Is someone rather peeved about recently having to settle a large bill for unpaid taxes, eh? This track and the next, Play Dead, are full of techno effects that ultimately do not go far enough. They dabble in electronica, but still align themselves to typical James nervy strumalongs. But the two styles don’t gel, and they’d be more satisfying as one or the other. Play Dead, in particular, could be one of James’ truly haunting acoustic numbers if it dropped the excess techno zeitgeist baggage: it is one of the few obviously beautiful melodies here.


 
Greenpeace (oh Tim, do you have to be so fucking obvious? What next? Veggie? ’90s Hippie? Beanbag?) is a dark, slightly rockier take on trip‑hop, alternating between distorted vocals and ambience in the verses and a chorus that feels like it’s built on the bassline of Massive Attack’s Safe From Harm. It is leaden, and rather desperate to show how contemporary it is. Where James once had that aura of being a band of weird but pleasant loners down the end of the corridor, they now come across more like insufferably tedious born‑again Christians; but, as Greenpeace shows, ones who are desperate to prove to the church elders that they are hip and rebellious, and that “this is what the kids are into.”


 
It’s all so frustrating when elsewhere there’s such a blatant demonstration of the simple, peculiar emotional alchemy that James can muster so well. I’m talking about Blue Pastures, a quiet, near‑acoustic whisper of a coda to ‘Whiplash’s technophilic sprawl. Jim Glennie’s bass rings like a sleepy bell, guitars fill out dark clouds in the sky, and James’ old Patti Smith influences are evoked once more as Booth unwinds the story: someone quietly putting things to rights, then walking out into the snow to die. Their thoughts slow, the ground gets closer. Snow covering. Peace arriving. Fade‑out. Perfection ‑ for once, we respond with tears of compassion and recognition rather than of frustration.


 
But in the reckoning, this album is a disappointment after the marvellous and underrated ‘Wah Wah’. Which proved that, in the right laid‑back conditions and with the right production influence from Brian Eno (who part‑produced and “interfered” with this one, but evidently not enough), James could come up with the post‑modern experimental pop they so desperately seek on ‘Whiplash’. Chained, often rather clumsily, to the typical James of old, the two styles pull against each other. U2 have managed to cling to the bandwagon by enlisting the best technoheads around. If James want to do likewise, they’d better get someone who can do a better job at improving the rather leaden attempts at electronica on here. Or they can forget the zeitgeist and return to being the pre‑pomposity weirdo folkies still to be glimpsed occasionally.

Which way, Tim?

(review by Col Ainsley)

James: ‘Whiplash’
Mercury Records/Fontana Records, 534 354‑2 (731453435421)
CD/cassette album
Released: 24th February 1997

Get it from:
on general release.

James online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Last FM YouTube

Album reviews – Labradford: ‘Labradford’ (“aural massage never sounded so nerve-wracking”)

15 Nov

Labradford: 'Labradford'

Labradford: ‘Labradford’

With two albums already behind them, it’s time to stop lumping Labradford in with Tortoise as the only two notable examples of American post-rock. Post-rock is an uncomfortable catch-all that can’t really adequately describe a spectrum that takes in the noisy Trans Am at one end and the classical minimalism of Rachel’s at the other. And where Tortoise approach from an obviously jazzy direction, Labradford’s methods are ice-cold developments on ambience that now seem to be reaching a creative peak.

When a known band suddenly gives, say, their third album the name of the band (the way one would usually do for a debut), you can generally guess that they’re making a pointed statement of identity and distancing themselves from much of what went before. And – appropriately – ‘Labradford’ is Labradford’s most fulfilling statement so far; showing a fully-developed band consolidating the intriguing (but ultimately frustrating and insubstantial) thumbnail sketches they provided on ‘Prazision’ and ‘A Stable Reference’.

Experiments like the deep sub-frequency bass – straight out of acid house – dropping into the chilling ambience of The Cipher or the dissonant tones that break up the background of Lake Speed are perhaps signs of ears being opened to electronica; although this also leads to a loss of the band’s shared interest in the ancient music and religious plainsong which influenced their earlier albums. And which kept me listening past the point where I’d gotten infuriated by their sheer collegiate lethargy, the way they sounded like something made by people who only got out of bed to turn their Neu! record over.

That spectral and distinctly European quality is missing from this year’s model to be replaced by more obviously technologically produced atmospherics, and better production has separated out the sounds from the claustrophobia of ‘A Stable Reference’. The addition of rhythms, albeit perfunctory and not necessarily conventional drum sounds, makes a big difference to the progress of the pieces. Where previously Labradford songs started, hung in stasis in a foggy air and then disappeared, there is now a definite propulsion, a moving forward. Reassuringly, though, we’re not talking 120 bpm…


 
For a group dealing in mainly instrumental ambient atmospheres, it comes as something of a joy to come across titles that, for once, bear some relation to the sounds being heard. The first track really does sound like a Phantom Channel Crossing – the most nightmarish vision imaginable of a midnight journey in a tin hulk of a ferry. The engines, the chains, the metallic resonances, the emptiness – all there. Maybe I’m imagining things. Painting my own picture for the sounds I’m hearing.

But if that’s not what Labradford’s all about, then there’s no point. This is a gallery of sound, rather than music. And yes, Midrange really does appear to exist all in that spectrum. It’s claustrophobic. While Mark Nelson’s voice mouths more of his usual indecipherable profundities over the group’s ghostly atmospherics, it is noticeable that more light is seeping into the sonic palette – distant violins and, most distinct from the usual swirling morass, a subtly tapped-out rhythm. It still ends with the growing unease of that Labradford noise, however – the closest description being the amplified sound of air ventilation.


 
Lake Speed is underpinned by a metronomic, surprisingly insistent bass drum rhythm, like a niggling thought tapping constantly on the wall of your brain. “Like a clock / In pieces / On the floor / I try to fix it fast / So I don’t lose too much time” – and as the clock ticks, all manner of worryingly gentle alarms go off in the background. It gives the impression of a David Lynch piece that is seeking to add to your feelings of paranoia. Aural massage never sounded so nerve-wracking. One of the track’s twisted and elongated effects sounds like a man giving vent to a low, painful scream. It’s buried deep in the mix… but it’s there. How appropriate.


 
Scenic Recovery retains much of the sound and atmosphere of Lake Speed. But still the thoughts keep churning away inside. The tap-tap-tapping rhythm has altered slightly – suddenly it’s the regular but ineffectual pulse of a coma patient. As the mire of sound envelops you, and tension hangs in the air, a solitary violin carries a melody through the ether. Pico is one of Labradford’s “songs”; rather than just shifting atmospheres. Almost hymnal in its simplicity – a sequence of heartbreaking chords, a melody that is played by a friendly alien on a space-age tin whistle, a barely-there whisper of a vocal and another minimalist, almost endearingly clumsy rhythm. The pace is processional, almost holy.



 
Oh God, how does one describe The Cipher? It is just there. It exists, like sounds exist even in the most silent of nights. Look, this is the sound of digital and analogue air rustling chains. Ghostly. Calming. It is all of these things. But mostly, it just is.


 
Battered, the closer, is almost eventful. Delicately balanced on a hesitant mandolin-like guitar, a brightly melodic riff, and with a beep providing the rhythm – coma patients again, nurse – it hits a Cocteaus-like bliss-out at the end. Perfect pop for Prozac people.


 
The last notes we hear are desert guitars drifting into the night. Death Valley, here we come…

(review by Col Ainsley)

Labradford: ‘Labradford’
Mute Liberation Technologies/Blast First Records, BFFP 136CD (5 016027 611360)
CD/download album
Released: 12th November 1996

Get it from:
(2018 update) CD best obtained second-hand, or download from Bandcamp.

Labradford online:
Homepage MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

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