Sunday, 10 November 2013

Album review: Sébastien Tellier - Confection

Never a man to play things by the book, dream-pop iconoclast Sébastien Tellier has created a sixth album that is an almost entirely instrumental affair. But the fact that his one deviation from type—the louche piano-stroking glide of "L'Amour Naissant"—represents th
e album's unclouded apex, is a telling indication of what this 14-song LP lacks.

Like a beatific, ethereal soundtrack to a film that has yet to exist, Confection finds the impenetrably esoteric Frenchman eschewing his more disco-coated side for something a little more sophisticated. And there's certainly an element of bourgeois cultivation in the lisping keys of "Adieu Comme Un Jeu" and the equally regal "Coco Et La Labyrinthe."

Yet, despite the opulent notes and refined compositions, Tellier's smooth-talking panache is a noticeable exclusion. And when it does make that one fleeting but glorious appearance, it only emphasizes his lack of presence elsewhere. An interesting listen, sure, but one that lacks the necessary direction.

First published here for Under the Radar

Album review: Dean Wareham - Emancipated Hearts

For a man who's been plying his trade for over 25 years, it's kind of strange that Emancipated Hearts is Dean Wareham's first solo recording. But, given the stripes he's earned as the frontman of revered dreampoppers Galaxie 500 and the lesser loved Luna, there's little chance of finding a naively coined debut record here.

Emancipated Hearts is as expertly crafted as you'd expect from someone of Wareham's heft. This mini-LP embodies the world-wearied experiences of its creator, exploring darker themes through a series of slow, winding sonic arrangements. It's not a sad album—far from it—but a deep-seated sense of vulnerability writhes through each tenderly sculpted number.

Opener "Love Is Colder Than Death" is the first indication of Wareham's step into a more fragile world. A gorgeous and warm country-flecked lament, its deft keystrokes and melancholic strings allow Wareham to dig up his emotional roots. The acoustic shiver "The Longest Bridges In the World" is just as stirring, exuding a comfort-from-the-storm aesthetic that recalls Damien Jurado at his most abyssal.

Produced by Jason Quever, the Papercuts frontman who's also had a hand in producing Beach House, this is a sublimely finished collection. Each cut has been given space to breathe under Wareham's brittle intone. Notably, "The Ticking Is the Bomb" barely stirs from its slumber of piano and strum, yet evolves as one of the record's most affecting moments.

A spacious cover of The Incredible String Band's "Air" closes the record out on a gorgeous shimmer of chiming guitar, leaving a swelling optimism cradled in the eardrums. It may have taken more than a quarter of a century to come to fruition, but this lack of hurry is exactly what makes Dean Wareham's first solo outing so stirring.

First published here for Under the Radar

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Album review: The Dismemberment Plan - Uncanney Valley

Ten years out of the game is a long time for anyone. But for The Dismemberment Plan it may seem even longer. In the decade since the Washington-born ensemble called it a day, the hyperventilating art-punk genre they once excelled in has been pounded, pummelled, and packaged into something that sells records and everything else—from potato chips to high-end motors.

The return of the pioneering quartet, then, is surely cause to celebrate. In a time where even the most iconoclastic acts reunite to pay the tax man, it's refreshing to think this is one comeback that may actually be about the music—particularly when guitarist Jason Caddell tells us the band have "always been more abstract than sales and statistics."

Studio album number five, Uncanney Valley, certainly backs this view up. An agitated yet hook-heavy affair, these 10 cuts feel like an act reacquainting itself, slipping into a creative comfort zone that still requires a little polish. In that sense, the first few listens will always compare unfavorably against the past, with "Daddy Was a Real Good Dancer" and "Invisible" in particular sinking as clumsy disappointments.

Thankfully their technical excellence remains intact. The schizoid percussion of "No One's Saying Nothing" is a breathless opener; the love-stained "Lookin" is built on an intricate needlework of guitar and gorgeous synth; while "Waiting" is a jittering, pseudo-funk gem. And while it might lack the punch of old, Uncanney Valley certainly proves that, 10 years on, there's still life left in these old dogs.

First published here fore Under the Radar

Album review: Moonface - Julia With Blue Jeans On

A Spencer Krug piano album-it had to happen sometime. In truth, the indie rock canon Krug's been mining over the past decade always seemed ill-fitting for his spectral croon. His is a voice that demands unfettered attention; one that craves a simple canvas from which to exhale mystical, metaphorical tropes. And somehow you knew the canvas was always going to be the piano.

Julia With Blue Jeans On actualizes the inevitable. The entirety of these 10 cuts is made up of only two elements: one piano, one voice. There are no overdubs, no harmonies, no screwdriving synth lines—this is as stripped down and streamlined a record as the Wolf Parade vanguard has ever produced. But it works.
Krug's always had the ability to lock listeners down into a world of allegory concerning matters of the heart.

Here, he concentrates this technique by minimising the sonic landscape and notching up the emotional decibels. What he creates is a record that can stride to the solid keystrokes of "Everyone Is Noah, Everyone Is the Ark" one minute, before floating into the title track's gushing swell of adulation the next.

This shifting cadence is the core to the record's flow. "Love the House You're In" spins a slow, mesmeric web of keys, while "Barbarian" and its sequel bleed extraordinary contemplation with every dashing stroke. But "November 2011" is the real killer. A tear-duct moistening yarn of entwined love, it's one of the most bewitching and disarming five minutes of music you'll hear this year.

Such candour is, perhaps, what's most remarkable about this recording. The piano has displaced Krug's veil of intellect and mystery. What remains is something warm, something sentimental, something beautiful. Spencer Krug has never sounded better.

First published here for Under the Radar

Album review: Los Campesinos! - No Blues

Few British bands walk the indie walk as devotedly as Los Campesinos!. Since releasing their debut LP Hold On Now, Youngster... in 2008, the Cardiff-bred sextet have continued to roam the music industry's less resplendent echelons without feeling the need to compromise their direction of travel for commercial success (give or take appearing on a few actual commercials).

Unsurprisingly, No Blues continues Los Campesinos!' development as reliable mainstays of the U.K.'s fragmented alternative music scene. Abounding with the usual collision of love, death, sex, and football (of the spherical shaped kind), the band's fifth studio album holds no shocks for those who have followed them from the cradle.

Yet, compared with the lovestruck refrains of 2011's Hello Sadness, these 10 cuts represent a more cultivated form of songwriting. Titles such as "A Portrait of the Trequartista as a Young Man" or "Selling Rope (Swan Dive to Estuary)" may imply an element of youthful quirk, but these are mature, fully formed compositions, built around tight structures and translucent production.

Without the usual thrust of instrument, No Blues refocuses on melody and Gareth Campesinos' vivid lyrical constructions. While his archetypal ironic wit remains, it plunges into darker depths during fizzing earworm "Avocado, Baby," where he cries "Oh it won't get any better/That doesn't mean it's gonna get any worse/You've got to draft a lifelong love letter/ Sent to the man who will be driving your hearse."

Stunning piano-stained anthem "The Time Before the Last Time," thick with splashing drum and parping brass, perhaps best symbolizes the magnificent scales Los Campesinos! could possibly reach. Yet, so strong are the band's indie roots, it's equally likely they'll never become the venerable grandstanders they should be. A pity, yes, but then again it's impossible not to love them just the way they are.

First published here for Under the Radar