Thursday, 15 May 2008

ALBUM REVIEW: Subtle- ExitingARM

As concepts go, the trilogy is simple to grasp: beginning, middle, end. No problem, right? But executing this sequence with unrelenting consistency has proven to be a cantankerous, almost ungraspable, achievement for even the most supremely gifted over the ages. Aye, The Godfather parts I and II were glimmering masterpieces but instalment number III was, well, excruciating at best. The same can be said of such prestigious triumvirates as (the original) Star Wars and The Lord Of The Rings, not to mention Crocodile Dundee’s bile-stirring cinematic threesome. (C’mon, how many of you actually endured 2001’s Crocodile Dundee In Los Angeles?)

See, the problem with the trilogy is that after a promising beginning and an invigorating mid-section, the finale almost always (bar a few notable exceptions – hello, The Bourne Ultimatum) tails off, devoid of ideas and creative motivation. It’s like an end of season kick-about between two teams with nothing to play for, all ready for a tan-topping trip to the Bahamas (if your mob is unfortunate enough to play in the SPL’s 'Bottom 6' you’ll know exactly what I mean). In cruder terms, a trilogy’s final fling could be compared to the last few tugs of an ageing cow’s teat, i.e. unbearably over-milked.

With this in mind, it’s perhaps best to greet Subtle’s third full-offering, ExitingARM with a wavering handshake of trepidation. Adam Drucker (aka Doesone) and his quintet of abstract hip-hop-electro-indie-pop pioneers’ previous two outings, the wonderful A New White (9/10 review) and the quite extraordinary follow-up For Hero: For Fool (10/10 review), documented the trials and tribulations of Drucker’s fiery-locked alter-ego ‘Hour Hero Yes’ as he looked to escape the enslaving clutches of the ‘Ungods’ by injecting meaning and life into the banal sanguinity of generic pop.

The music was as surreal as the narrative – acerbic skewered beats rinking and dinking between luscious shards of melody – and my god did it work. These were sounds that embedded themselves deep within the skull and zigzagged their way through a maze of grey matter; sounds that transcended beyond genre, beyond gender, beyond words. It didn’t matter which multi-fractioned tribe you belonged to, in those two records Subtle served up a delectable smorgasbord upon which even the most pernickety palate could dine.

And what of this, the third and final instalment of Hour Hero Yes’s battle against sonic oppression? Is it to be a limp anti-climax that has wandering minds recalling its predecessors shuddering brilliance or a startling curtain-closer that invokes cries of “Bravo” or “Encore”?

Well, what ExitingARM initially lacks is instantaneity. The title track’s transient synth throbbing feels decidedly muffled, as if molly-coddled in cotton wool before being shunted out into the world naked and wholly under prepared for the brutality to come. Make no mistake, this is not the battle ready, P-Funk smothered Subtle of ‘A Tale Of Apes pt 1’; there’s a jittery intrepidness seeping from the introductory gambit’s ethereal floating that trickles almost seamlessly into the hazy crackle of ‘Day Dangerous’, drawing the first parallels with TV On The Radio’s equally gauze-laden Return To Cookie Mountain.

It’s from this multi-layered hive of instrumentation and exquisite verb-spouting though where ExitingARM begins to flourish. ‘The No’ is first to exhilarate, with Drucker ripping through abstract verses like “a sceptic can be grown in no time, from the treated torso of anyone torn in two” as a swathe of brain-fucking riffs and basslines rattle across nerve-ends before landing as a cockle-warming choral soothe that reassures listeners “when you crash you’ll know where your plane is”. And thank Christ for that, because in the acid-jazz warp of synths, beat and verse found lurking in the eerily mechanical ‘Hallow Hollered’ you’ll need to know these things, so disorientating are the rhythm patterns expelling their way from the speakers and swamping confused, dumfounded mindsets.

Although Drucker’s rampant lyrical persuasiveness halts to almost pedestrian levels during the languid hymnal sun-setting of ‘The Crow’, he’s quickly resuscitated by the electro-jolt of ‘Unlikely Rock Shock’’s vociferous Juno wibbling. A pivotal moment that serves as the starting point for a more demented direction to this already maniacal affair, it’s an axis-swivelling, percussion-fuelled screwdriver full of luscious harmonies and dissipating breaks and bleeps that infect accommodating limbs in a manner Albarn and his dastardly crew of cartoonised tunesmiths could only ever dream of.

Yet the chaos ensuing from ‘Take To Take’’s android tribalism and ‘Gonebones’’ beat-laden incongruence is somehow even more breathless. The former comes alive with a drainpipe-rattling backbone of drum ‘n’ bass that builds into an organ-strewn marshland spitting out relentless sprawls of affected, temple-chiselling vocal, while the latter's ever-exploding melodic minefield somehow embraces eastern European polka and finds Drucker rolling off a verbose stream that surges so furiously it threatens to burst both riverbanks and eardrums alike. It’s a brace of unhinged mastery and one that guides this record into the realms of essential listening, if only to experience such frantic, vivid sounds being contorted as something cohesive, something miraculous.

One slight afforded to ExitingARM is that ambient numbers such as ‘Providence’ or the aforementioned ‘The Crow’ perhaps lack the intrigue of their denser co-habitants. But these snipes will no doubt erode as this - not unlike Why?’s peerless Alopecia (review) - is without question an album to discover over time; one so awash with subtle (sorry) nuances it could take weeks, months, or even years to excavate the entirety of its bulging musical trajectory. And, if certain other trilogies are anything to go by, such timescales could prove rather handy while you await a prequel’s arrival with baited breath.
Rating: 8/10
Out 26 May through Lex Records

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

LIVE REVIEW: The Ruby Suns, The Drunken Unicorn, Atlanta, 14 Aptil

Awesome - everything’s "totally freaking awesome" in this country. From my pronunciation of humdrum words like “aluminium” and “tomato” to the relentless flash floods that plough their way through an already tornado-decimated Atlanta, there’s seemingly nothing over here that can’t be described glowingly in those seven little letters.

Emanating from the gleekit backwaters of Scotland, such unflappable enthusiasm comes as much of a surprise to this sour-faced hack – it’s almost as perplexing as the single orange slice found floating in my pint of Erdinger upon arriving four days ago – but as I enter the almost un-locatable scuzz-hole of The Drunken Unicorn my eyes are met by something far removed from such jaw-gaping effusiveness.

A measly 29 folk have converged to witness the extraordinary sonic spectrum of The Ruby Suns tonight – that’s right, less than 30 punters have turned up to witness a band whose sophomore (sorry, but I'm in America so it's acceptable, isn't it?) album Sea Lion scored 8.3 on Pitchfork and mighty fine 8 here on these very pages. Christ, and they say Edinburgh's lacking in its support of quality music. If this is the best American crowds have to offer then its nae wonder so many stateside acts choose to adopt the UK shores as their surrogate homeland.

Such sparse, smoke-filled surroundings do not seem like the most fitting of venues in which the New Zealand-based trio will thrive tonight but as a cacophonous swell of seashell-bellowed harmonies and shuddering tribal rhythms oscillates through the rafters and into the plugged-up lugholes below, this meagre attendance quickly erodes from thought.

This is a truly remarkable set, breathless of pace and enchanting of aura. The effects board adventurism of button-cute duo Amee Robinson and Imogen Taylor are a playful backbone of waterfall melodies and jinking synth sirening that lounge out canopy-like over ‘There Are Birds’’ magnificent sun-blushed splendour. But, for all their rosy-cheeked endeavours, it’s Ryan McPhun’s multi-instrumental athleticism that pilfers the attention of pin-holed peepers tonight.

A Catherine Wheel of limbs and locks, the be-shorted frontman’s combustible percussion pounds and affected guitar spindling are a mesmerising combination, riddled with energy and bustling with ingenuity. The slow burned, sometime languid, trickling found in Sea Lion rarely rears its head here as McPhun unleashes his raw, unbridled skin-pummelling over ‘Ole Rinka’’s opening chimes. He is a man possessed; eyes peeled and skin tautened as bones pound the floor with the relentlessness of a middle distance runner pulling out of the slipstream and accelerating to victory. And what a victory it is.

Every patchworked trinket is infused with a joyous sense of urgency that steam-rolls stage-side cynics into an ebullient playground where simple fireside jaunting melodies are created by a hexagonal labyrinth of musicianship. The likes of ‘Oh Mojave’ and ‘Tane Mahuta’ are astonishing moments of Hawaiian-esque blustering, recalling the spider-webbed weavery of Animal Collective’s Here Comes The Indian yet frothing with an ease of listening that incites harmonious head bobbing rather than the appreciative chin-stroking that typifies many acts as precocious of instrument.

And that’s what makes the group such a mesmerising live proposition – this is not just live music, it’s music that’s alive; alive like the sound of waves crashing against the shore and rain dancing on the earth and, as the last sprinkle of sumptuous melody gushes into the airwaves, it’s music that’s alive to a triumphant, prolonged applause that greets the band’s exit from stage. There may have been jack-shit here to witness this staggering showing but as the lights go up and the ‘crowd’ disperses there’s absolutely no denying it: tonight, The Ruby Suns were absolutely awesome.
Rating: 9/10

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

ALBUM REVIEW: Diamanda Galás - Guilty, Guilty Guilty

When Franklin D Roosevelt announced “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” he'd clearly never been subjected to the Warlockian annunciations of Diamanda Galás. If he had, you can bet your bottom dollar his inaugural address to the American nation would have been a helluva less optimistic affair.

Rampaging of tone and terrifying of scale, the San Diego-raised warbler has released 16 supernatural séances over the course of her 26-year-long recording career, garnering such back-handed accolades as “Lizard Queen” and “life sucking” from petrified hacks. And album number 17, Guilty Guilty Guilty, does little to readdress the zombified persona this 52 year old has revelled in since her screeching, scented-sleeved debut single ‘The Litanies of Satan’ was unleashed upon an unsuspecting music buying public back in 1982.

Abound with gothic reinterpretations of classic song writings by the likes of Edith Piaf and Ralph Stanley, this exhilarating collection of avant-garde horror-jazz furrows itself deep within the pits of churning, nauseated stomachs whilst slowly unleashing a swill of disarming sonic poison into the bloodstream. From the first predatory strike of ivory keys that jitters out from the O.V. Wright-penned ‘8 Men And 4 Women’, it’s clear this is going to be a tumultuous journey, with Galás' acidic growl dislodging comfort zones in a midden of acrobatic shrill.

To describe Galás’ astonishing rasp in mere words is, quite frankly, undoable – these are a set of lungs that demand to be heard, deserve to be explored. By mimicking the age-old ‘speaking in tongues’ technique Glossolalia – a Christian practice of reciting fluent speech in inaudible, intelligible utterances – this demonised damsel transforms jazz bar staple ‘Autumn Leaves’ into a macabre vaudevillian opus that quick-steps from slooping Simone-like blues to a writhing hellfire of burning, inconsolable heartbreak.

The obvious stand out in this aurally challenging compilation of tear-stained love songs is the overwhelming reaper-like reprise of Stanley’s ‘O Death’. Beginning with Galás’ incoherent tombstone-cut bawl, it emerges as a Waits-esque guzzle of bloodthirsty tankard swilling, ravaged by deft Dirty South keys and a harrowing underpass of pin-dropped silence that’s punctured intermittently by the occasional whoop of appreciation from a jaw-agape audience.

And it's this which makes Guilty Guilty Guilty such a remarkable feat – much of its content is recorded as live. Yet, in these times of multi-layered production, the thought of each staggering, pitch-perfect cut being concocted in just one take seems like an incomprehensible, noggin-crunching proposition. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what we should truly fear. Not fear itself but the brilliant, shrieking holler of one Diamanda Galás.

Rating: 7/10

Out now on Mute

Sunday, 4 May 2008

ALBUM REVIEW: Tindersticks - The Hungry Saw

Since my first introduction to the cavernous splendour of Tindersticks - 1997's gorgeously hushed Curtains - the world has changed dramatically. Terrorism's become the athlete's foot of a globalised society, New Labour's regressed from the voice of the everyday man to a whimper which represents only the silver-spooned few, and Britney… well, let’s just say that that once-delicate seed has blossomed into a overly pollinated flower that’s slowly beginning to wilt in the Heat, or whatever shit-stirring gossip rag it is that barricades the shelves of your local newsagent.

But for all the seismic cultural shifts that have transpired over the past 11 years it's reassuring to know that two constant elements have remained intact: the Earth's still spinning on its axis despite its inhabitant's best endeavours and, the king of the sombre psalm, Stuart Staples is continuing to bellow out a stream of doom-harbouring canticles. Yet the question has to be posed: in these turbulent times of modernity, where every lovelorn troubadour gushes out matters of the heart like a wonky faucet in a rat-infested squat, is there really any place for the Nottingham-born grouch’s ensemble of tear-jerking tunesmiths?

The simple answer is yes.

Spawned in the belly of Staples’ Le Chien Chanceux studio in France, new record The Hungry Saw is an understated (what else?) return to the fore. If the hiatus since 2003’s breathtaking Waiting For The Moon - ignoring Staples’ three solo offerings, which included the trembling soul-plucking of 2006’s beautiful Leaving Song - left a black hole of sorrow lingering in your heavy heart then this, the band’s seventh long-player, will slowly reignite those empathetic fires that fizzled out after the last spellbinding notes of the album's closer, ‘Running Wild’, faded from your ear sockets.

For the freshly enticed, there really is nothing like a new Tindersticks record – of course, the irony is that there really is everything like a new Tindersticks record. Because, as long-standing devotees of the group will already know, deviations between albums are as rare as a plate of steak tartare served up in a Parisian restaurant. Sure, a greater depth of miserablism may dwell under every eagerly opened sleeve but the group’s innate aural essence always persists, i.e. lilting, nocturnal soundscapes embedded in the mire of Staples’ brooding, baritonal mumble. The Hungry Saw is no exception.

The record’s introductory offering - snappily entitled ‘Intro’ - is a crawling instrumental, deep-seated in creepy ivory keys and tepid glockenspiel bound together by bleak clouds of sadness that eventually cascade into the loungey bassline of ‘Yesterdays Tomorrows’. A guitar clanking fallow of roomy atmospherics, the track builds from Staples’ inimitable croon (bar this, obviously) into a swell of brass and flute that sets the melancholic tone for the ten introverted gems to come.

Undoubtedly a master apologist at heart, Staples is perhaps not the most willing expresser of sorrow to those he's wronged, with tracks like ‘The Other Side Of The World’ and the sumptuous ‘Mother Dear’ spent untangling the frayed knots of irredeemable loss amidst a barren backdrop of windswept strings. But this crestfallen sense of hopelessness is what makes The Hungry Saw such an engaging, endearing record. Every gloomy paean feels as though it’s been written for the sole purpose of your forgiveness, like a collection of melodic repentance in which Staples derives comfort from the knowledge that someone, somewhere will nuzzle him into the crux of their bosom and tell him everything is okay, that it wasn’t his fault.

Like many a Tindersticks offering there are few standouts amidst a steady tide of immaculately arranged and tenderly caressed compositions but so lug-pricking are the title track and ‘All The Love’ it’s difficult not to wallow in the shimmering resplendence of both via a few clicks of the Repeat button. The former is a sway of speckled country guitar and washboard percussion that exudes a terse lyrical reflection akin to the biblical mutterings of a The Boatman’s Call-era Cave, whilst the latter's pensive, drowning lament clings mercifully to the steadfast pillar of Staples’ baited breath vocal.

The one slight that could be pinned on the The Hungry Saw is that there’s very little here that couldn’t slot seamlessly into any of the group’s output over the last 16 years. But then, that’s surely not the point: this is a Tindersticks record and, much like our world orbiting the sun, it’s something that can be unequivocally relied upon to produce the goods. And thank heavens for that because (begins lighting pipe before sitting back on well-cushioned rocking chair) in this day and age there’s not much out there you can safely put your money on.

Rating: 7/10

Out now on Beggars Banquet

Album Review: Dave Cloud & The Gospel Of Pwer - Pleasure Before Business

As a performing artist whose career’s spanned over quarter of a century, Dave Cloud’s probably earned the right to the title ‘Psychedelic Shaman’. With his band The Gospel Of Power, the Nashville dwelling mainstay has consistently blurted out a tirade of deranged blues stomps since the release of 1999's seminal offering Songs I Will Always Sing and, with a debut title buried in such bold intent, it’s unsurprising to find new release Pleasure Before Business embedded once again with his unflappable penchant for acid-infused bedlam.

Owing much to the unhinged surrealism of Captain Beefheart, this assortment of originally penned numbers and screwball covers is a far less accolade-garnering affair than his ragged, reverb-friendly pillars of yore. Setting the scene with ‘You Don’t Need Sex’’s driven atomic chords, the tumultuous swirl of low-mixed guitar and scrunched drums retreats in to the kind of mangled ‘70s swamp ‘n’ roll that soundtracks ‘tales from the street’ B movies and has back-catalogue pillaging vultures like David Holmes salivating at the jowls whilst hurriedly over-coming the hurdle of copyright infringement.

Unconsciously made up of two distinct parts, side A is a linear sprawl of middling bass-rattlers that injects jaywalking Hammond organs and Cloud’s, Andre 3000-esque, drawl into the voodoo-centric, pre-coital courtships of ‘Hey (You’re Beautiful)’ and ‘Orgy’ without ever managing to fully engage the senses of the listener, so predictable and basal do they become. Side B, however, finds Cloud chartering more dishevelled territories and, with it, the album transcends as an enterprising warble of writhing over-dubs and lunatic, mouth-frothing rhythms.

Often unintelligible and seemingly directionless, tracks containing the Transylvanian horror-schlock of ‘Rock Video’ and ‘50 Dollar’’s mescaline induced drone prove a refreshing, attention-bothering antidote to the token Blues-isms of the record’s opening gambits. Riddled with primitive tribalism and a diseased sense of vengeance, Cloud’s ragged snarl besieges Resnick and Levine’s ‘Yummy Yummy Yummy’, skewing its bubblegum-popping playfulness into a jungle of rabid acoustic strums. Whilst his inane professions over Yvonne Elliman’s Bee Gees-drafted hit ‘If I Can’t Have You’ result in a curtain-closer so draped in frenzied, vociferous feedback it sets his place in the queue to the pantheon of deranged, psycho-babbling experimentalists inhabited by the likes of Zappa and Barrett.

A first half burdened by humdrum mediocrity may diminish the overall effect of Pleasure Before Business but, in the brawling strides of its finishing flourish, this ‘Psychedelic Shaman’ just about shows he has the talent to persevere for another 25 years.

Rating: 5/10

Out now on Fire Records